This article focuses on the fact that some developers say the best economic case for fuel cell mobility applications, may be found in the warehouse before cars and buses can make their mark. The automobile has become the poster child of the fuel cell revolution, but the exchange at Hanover Fair in Germany underscores the rocky road to commercialization. Until there are service stations where a driver can pull in and buy hydrogen, the personal automobile is irrelevant. Municipal buses avoid that problem. They circulate within driving distance of a central fueling station. It could contain hydrogen as well as any other fuel. Fuel cells pose a more easily solved problem. Although they take up as much space as lead-acid batteries, they weigh much less. The cell packs are so light that a truck can tip over when lifting heavy loads. Developers are still testing technology and economics. This can take place only in the real world, where people make decisions based on returns on their investments. Because forklifts make the best economic case for any fuel cell mobility application, they are likely to provide answers that may lead to the fuel cell cars and buses of the future.
At a gathering of fuel cell developers at Germany's giant Hanover Fair this past April,Jacob Hansen talked about plans of his Danish startup, H2 Logic A/S, to launch the first of seven fuel cell-powered demonstration cars in Scandinavia this fall.
Not possible, countered someone else close to the project, looking at a mockup of the vehicle across an aisle. Too much engineering remains, he said.
No, replied another member of the H2 Logic team, the car will be ready.
In popular perception, the automobile has become the poster child of the fuel cell revolution, but the exchange at Hanover underscores the rocky road to commercialization. Until there are service stations where a driver can pull in and buy hydrogen, the personal auto·mobile is irrelevant. Municipal buses avoid that problem. They circulate within driving distance of a central fueling station. It could contain hydrogen as well as any other fuel.
But there is another vehicle that is drawing attention for its possibilities in the fuel cell universe. It doesn't even go onto the public highway, so it stays close to its fuel supply. It isn't a toy, and in fact does essential work, and it is around these points that developers are trying to build a business case for it. According to several developers, the road to fuel cell buses and cars will be traveled first by the lowly forklift.
Why forklifts? Fuel cell vehicles may dazzle with the claim of zero-emission performance, but somehow the wedding of technology and practical uses keeps getting pushed back. More than 30 years after fuel cells were touted as a solution to the original energy crisis, the global industry's research and development spending is still twice as high as its total sales, according to a survey by the U.S. Fuel Cell Council.
Engineers have solved many of the issues that made real-world uses a receding target.
Equally important, politicians responding to high oil prices and increasing concern over global warming have begun to pump money into alternative fuels. This past March, for example, Germany proclaimed that it would invest 500 million euros over the next 10 years and subsidize half the purchase cost of any fuel cell vehicle. The U.S. Department of Energy is ramping up spending, and the Federal Transit Administration recently set aside $49 million to test fuel cell buses.
No wonder H2 Logic was at April's Hanover Fair with 130 other fuel cell exhibitors, 30 percent more than turned out in 2006. February's Fuel Cell Expo in Tokyo drew 462 exhibitors, up 50 percent from 2006, and 24,494 visitors from 53 countries.
They are following the money, hoping that government funding will help close the cost gap between today's fuel cells and tomorrow's commercial vehicles. Yet even if the government picks up half the tab, it's not easy to find applications that make economic sense.
Although fuel cell cars get lots of press-and nearly every major automaker and many smaller companies like H2 Logic have small fleets-they are essentially prototypes.
Buses are more promising. "There is a real market in fuel cells for buses," said one exhibitor at Hanover. Yet fleets remain small. Europe's largest demonstration program involves 11 cities, if you include Perth, Australia, and about 27 buses. Berlin hopes to use German subsidies to launch a fleet of 14 buses.
More typical is Sunline Transit Agency of Thousand Palms, Calif. It operates two hydrogen-powered vehicles, but only one uses a fuel cell. The other burns hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. In November 2006, Sunline received a $2.8 million grant to put a second fuel cell bus into operation in 2008.
In the arguments of developers, economics set fuel cell forklifts apart from other vehicles. One of those arguments is offered by Mark Kammerer, head of business development for Hydrogenics Corp., a Mississauga, Ontario, developer of fuel cells that is partly owned by General Motors Corp.
According to Kammerer, a large warehouse might operate a fleet of 200 or 300 forklifts. Each forklift battery operates for eight hours on a single charge. Most 24/7 warehouses need more than one battery for each forklift. While one powers the machine, the other recharges, and perhaps a third is kept as a backup. When the forklifts run low, they go back to the recharging station to swap out batteries.
This is no simple operation. A very large forklift battery can weigh as much as 1.5 metric tons. A Nascar pit stop crew might be able to trade large batteries in as few as 10 minutes, but Kammerer estimates that 15 or 20 minutes is more common.
Now imagine doing that for a fleet of 200 vehicles. If a crew can average four battery swaps per hour, it can do 32 swaps per day. It would take six or seven stations
to service all 200 vehicles in a single shift, and 9 or 10 stations for a fleet of 300 vehicles. Companies must also pay for the costly disposal of hazardous spent leadacid batteries.
In addition to labor costs, Kammerer points to a cost in space. Most warehouses are searching desperately for more room. Many have raised . their storage racks higher and higher, seeking every bit of available space. Most would be all too happy to reclaim the space now taken up by battery storage and swapping stations.
Fuel cells address both issues, Kammerer said. Warehouse and factory managers can install a small hydrogen plant outside the building, a practice common among industrial gas users. Inside, fueling stations take up only a fraction of the room now housing batteries and service bays. Warehouses can reclaim that area.
Refueling takes less than two minutes, and forklift operators can do it themselves, according to Benedikt Eska, CEO of Proton Motor Fuel Cell GmbH of Starnberg, Germany. This eliminates the need for dedicated "pit stop" teams to swap out batteries. Fuel cells also run about 12 hours between refueling, so fleets refuel two times per day instead of three.
"We think we need to show the total cost of ownership before we can compete economically with battery-powered fuel cells," Eska said. That means not only initial costs, operating costs, and product life, but also maintenance costs and up-time reliability. "We think we need to show fuel cell life spans of 5,000 hours to compete with a forklift with a one-battery set and 10,000 hours with a forklift with a two-battery set." Until he has more field experience with long-term service costs, it's hard to mount a believable economic argument.
Fuel cells also pose a more easily solved problem. Although they take up as much space as lead-acid batteries, they weigh much less. The cell packs are so light that a truck can tip over when lifting heavy loads. Of course, the problem is easily solved by adding some lead or other weights under the fuel cell system.
Several companies have already invested in small fuel cell forklift fleets. Hydrogenics, for example, is planning a two-year test of 19 fuel cell forklifts at General Motors in Oshawa, Ontario. Proton Motor, Nuvera Fuel Cells (a Cambridge, Mass.; supplier owned by Hess Corp., Renault S.A., and Gruppo De Nora), and General Hydrogen (Canada) Corp. in Richmond, British Columbia, have smaller tests or development alliances under way
Fuel cells remain a work in progress, however. They have yet to reach the 5,000-to-10,000-hour lifespan Eska estimates they need to compete with batteries. Thanks to materials, designs, and filters, both Eska and Kammerer expect cells to last about 3,000 hours in a forklift. That is equivalent to one-third of a year in a facility running 2417. Both men say their companies have bench-tested fuel cells that last 5,000 to 8,000 hours, but Eska warns that those results are for cells, not complete systems.
Fuel cells promise mass transit without the pollution, odor, or noise. While several cities operate prototype fuel cell buses, their range is limited and their costs aren't competitive with conventional engines.
Nickels and Dimes
Catalysts are another sore point. They are made of platinum, a metal associated with jewelry when gold is just not expensive enough. No matter how thin a coating developers use, platinum is a major cost. Developers try to circumvent the problem by recovering platinum from spent fuel cells. Hydrogenics, for example, recovers about 98 percent of its catalyst, Kammerer said. Yet recovery remains costly. Those 2 percent losses also add up: A fleet of 20 forklifts running 24/7 would lose the equivalent of 1.2 fuel cells' worth of platinum every year.
Critics note that there isn't enough platinum in the ground to serve potential fuel cell markets.
Several companies are investigating other catalysts, most notably nickel-based nanoparticles. Although nickel has lower catalytic activity than platinum, nanoparticles have a much higher surface area per unit volume than conventional platinum coatings. Researchers hope the sheer number of catalytic sites on nanoparticles will enable them to achieve the same amount of activity as an equivalent area of platinum.
The key to using nanoparticles is finding a way to make all that surface area available. Several companies are attacking the problem. In Crespina, Italy, for example, Acta S.p.A. bonds nickel and other metal nanoparticles to polymers, which it then coats onto cheap and highly porous carbon black. Heating the carbon black vaporizes the coating, leaving nickel nanoparticles applied evenly over all the pores.
"The key is the size of the particles and how you deposit them," said Antonio Filpi, an Acta scientist. Acta estimates that it can supply 1 metric ton per month of catalyst at about 5 euros per gram, about one-fourth the cost of a similar volume of platinum.
In order to circumvent hydrogen infrastructure issues, developers have proposed converting hydrocarbons into hydrogen inside the fuel cell itself. That has been questioned as possibly being less efficient than burning the hydrocarbons directly.
Two potential sources of hydrogen, natural gas and propane, already have distribution infrastructure systems in place. Two others, methanol and ethanol, are alcohols that could possibly use existing pipelines, delivery trucks, and storage tanks.
Methanol has attracted the most attention as a possible fuel. Just a few years ago, the only economical way to reform methanol was in refinery-sized chemical plants. Today, several companies can do it with fist-size systems that simplify processing and take only a few moments to reach operating temperatures.
Germany's Jiilich Institute of Energy Research has unveiled its first forklift powered by a direct methanol fuel cell. Detlef Stolten, the lab's director, said, "With this prototype, we are now only a small step away from the commercialization of our fuel cell technology."
Some direct methanol fuel cells have already broken into the market. Michael Tausch, European key account manager of IdaTech LLC in Bend, Ore., said his company has installed several direct methanol fuel cells for backup power in telecommunications facilities.
The application is smart for all the right reasons. According to Tausch, a single 30-gallon barrel of methanol water mixture replaces 18 cylinders of compressed hydrogen. "No hydrogen provider delivers to some of these remote facilities, but liquid is a lot easier and safer to transport and almost anyone can do it," he said.
Meanwhile, Protonex Technology Corp. of Southborough, Mass., expects to release a small, 250-watt direct methanol fuel cell for backup power, boating, and camping later this year.
Forklifu may take advantage of direct methanol. By eliminating the need to build on-site hydrogen plants, the technology would quickly improve fuel cell competitiveness.
So would new processes designed to purify hydrogen. The typical fuel cell requires hydrogen that is four to six nines (99.99 to 99.9999 percent) pure, explained Jeffrey Altman, president and CEO of Hy9 Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass. Industrial grade hydrogen, which sells for $28 per cylinder, is only 2-nines pure. Hydrogen costs $206 per cylinder for 4-nines and $~20 for 6-nines purity.
The company has a membrane-based purifier that would enable fuel cells to run on cheaper grades of fuel. It would also give small hydrogen plants a more economical way of producing highly purified fuels.
It is hard to predict how the fuel cell future will evolve. Perhaps better and cheaper catalysts or direct methanol or natural gas technologies may bring fuel cells within reach of ordinary drivers.
In the meantime, though, developers are still testing technology and economics. This can take place only in the real world, where people make decisions based on returns on their investments. Because forklifts make the best economic case for any fuel cell mobility application, they're likely to provide answers that may lead to the fuel cell cars and buses of the future. Or warn us to take another direction.