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Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

Oct. 6 , 2011

Logistics news: Fuel-Cell Powered Lift Trucks Starting to Make an Impact in Distribution Centers

Cost is Still High, but Subsidies Can Help Drive Business Case Today; Crown Sells 500th Unit; How Close are You to a Hydrogen Station?


SCDigest Editorial Staff

While the Green supply chain movement overall seems to have hit something of a plateau of late, much action still continues to be happening in the lift truck sector, as many manufacturers have delivered vehicles to market based on hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Crown Equipment Corp., for example, recently announced it has just sold its 500th fuel-cell powered vehicle, and has constructed a special development center outside of Dayton, Oh (some 50 miles from its New Bremen, OH headquarters) that focuses specifically on fuel-cell technology.

SCDigest Says:

Crown says it sees various degrees of interest. Some customers started very early in deploying fuel cells, and have progressed to a production stage, where in some cases they are bringing in 100 or more lift trucks per site.
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SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore recently sat down with Ernst Baumgartner, program manager for Crown's fuel cell program. Excerpts of that video interview are published below. You can also watched the video itself below.

Gilmore: To make sure we get everyone on the same page, what is fuel cell technology in the lift truck market?

Baumgartner: Electric lift trucks are typically powered by lead acid batteries. Fuel cells are a new technology that replaces that battery.

Gilmore: So is it similar or perhaps even identical to the fuel cell technology people may be aware of for automobiles, but just applied to the fork truck market?

Baumgartner: That's correct.

Gilmore: Ok, so what really is the state of fuel cell technology in lift trucks right now?

Baumgartner: It is a pretty young market right now, but some of the technology is at production levels today. Companies are putting fuel cell trucks into production-type environments. But the technology still takes a bit of handholding, and that's what our production center is about.

Gilmore: So you've developed a whole research center to basically figure this technology out?

Baumgartner: Yes, we have done that. Back in 2008, we opened up a production center just north of Dayton, OH, and we are bringing in fuel cells from any supplier that has them at production levels, and we test them out with any Crown truck that it might work with.


Watch the Video Interview Here


(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below)


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Gilmore: Ernst, there's obviously a Green play here with reducing greenhouse gases, etc. Can you summarize what the advantages or potential advantages of fuel cell trucks are?

Baumgartner: Fuel cells put out only water and heat, along with the energy to drive the lift truck. So there are no exhaust gases to deal with. Hydrogen gas is a very clean supply source for energy. A number of our customers have found that there is a positive business case, that they can save money by bringing in fuel cell-based lift trucks. Others have found that they can support their Green initiatives through using hydrogen gas that was generated coming from waste processes.

Gilmore: So you obviously get rid of all the battery charging processes that are a big headache for most companies. How are fuel cells recharged?

Baumgartner: Hydrogen gas is supplied to the facility, and the trucks are refueled using typical refueling stations that look almost like gas stations for automobiles.

Gilmore: You do this once per day approximately or what?

Baumgartner: You do that typically once a shift.

Gilmore: You recently announced you have delivered the 500th Crown fuel cell truck to market - where are you seeing the interest?

Baumgartner: We see various degrees of interest. Some customers started very early in deploying fuel cells, and have progressed to a production stage, where in some cases they are bringing in 100 or more lift trucks per site. They convert a site completely to be operated by fuel cells. Other companies have heard about it, they've heard about tax incentives, and bring in a few trucks for trials.

Gilmore: So just to be clear, you have a number of pilots, but you have a few customers that are in full production mode in a distribution center?

Baumgartner: Absolutely.

Gilmore: Obviously people are going to be interested in cost. You mentioned some companies can come up with a strong business case, and you also said there were some incentives out there that can be key to that overall business case - can you just give us some idea of the cost and value equation here?

Baumgartner: It can be a complicated process to go through the justification, and can be sensitive to a lot of different factors. Those include the cost of electricity as delivered to the facility, the cost of the hydrogen - that can be a regional cost . If you are close to a hydrogen generation facility, then the cost will be lower than if you are farther away.

Typically the hydrogen is trucked in either in pressurized gas form or in a liquid form. At some point in the future, one would anticipate pipelines, and that will bring the cost down and be a significant advantage.

Other factors include the cost of traditional batteries. In a three-shift operation, you need three batteries, and that helps in the business case usually. High duty cycles can play a role, when one battery per shift is not enough. Refueling of the fuel cells is very fast. It can be done two or three times a shift if needed, and doesn't impact productivity very much.

Gilmore: So it's just like going to a gas station and filling up - it happens in a few minutes or something?

Baumgartner: Yes, three to four minutes usually to refill a fuel cell completely.

Gilmore: Ernst, thanks so much for being here and education us today.

Baumgartner: Thanks for having me.

Do you have any experience evaluating or operating fuel cell-based lift trucks? What is your view on this? Ready now for prime time, or not quite there yet? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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