20 June 2012
Fuels of the future
For years, there have been announcements about trials of forklift trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Cleaner and greener, yes – but can we expect to see them in our UK factories any time soon? Laura Cork finds out
Concerns about the supply infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells and safety questions over the refuelling process saw the early tide of forklift trials slow to a trickle. That's no longer the case and some key fuel cell announcements have been made in the past few months – on both sides of the Atlantic.
The US has always been the most fertile ground for forklift fuel cell trials, with companies like Walmart being early adopters. But the trials have now given way to real-life applications. In February, Coca-Cola unveiled a 37-strong fleet of forklifts powered by hydrogen fuel cells at a bottling plant in San Leandro, California. The trucks feature GenDrive fuel cells developed by Plug Power. These are designed to replace the traditional lead-acid batteries used in electric trucks and can be refuelled in minutes. The drinks manufacturer says the new fuel technology is increasing productivity by 15%.
This Coca-Cola contract was one of the first under a joint venture for US-based Plug Power and French partner Air Liquide for provision of the hydrogen fuel cells. Late last year, the two businesses announced their joint venture, which they say will drive expansion into the European material handling market. Watch this space.
And last month, global consumer goods manufacturer Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced that it is converting forklift fleets at three of its US factories to hydrogen fuel cells. The first three P&G manufacturing facilities to use the greener trucks are in California, North Carolina and Louisiana. Here, too, Plug Power is supplying the technology. Greener they may be, but for P&G this is about much more than a nod to sustainability. VP Stefano Zenezini describes fuel cell forklifts as "a financially attractive proposition" thanks to the productivity boost they deliver. "Our internal analysis shows that we can not only achieve the sustainability benefits, but can also achieve an attractive rate of return on our investment at the same time," he adds.
Once the conversation process is complete, more than 200 fuel cell forklifts will operate across the three P&G sites. P&G says the trucks sustain power for the entire shift and are much faster to refuel, taking about two minutes to perform with high-pressure hydrogen gas.
The US may have led the charge, but significant strides have been taken much closer to home, too. A six-week trial of fuel cell materials handling equipment took place during February and March this year at Marks and Spencer's new distribution centre in Bradford. While the project played out in a retail distribution centre, manufacturing users should certainly sit up and take notice.
Billed as the first trial of its kind in the UK, it saw powered pallet trucks and a reach truck using hydrogen generated on site to refuel the equipment, which was used over a 24-hour shift pattern.
The company behind the technology, Sheffield-based ITM Power, deployed its HFuel refuelling station to the site. It looks like a typical freight container (right), but is anything but. A transportable hydrogen refuelling station, this standalone, self-contained module generates hydrogen by electrolysis, compresses it, stores it and dispenses the gas at high pressure (350 bar). Once in position, all it needs it a water and electricity supply.
The Prologis Park facility was chosen by M&S because it is the retailer's newest ambient warehouse and is described as an 'eco-build'. Up to 110 vehicles leave from the site each day, laden with goods for shops around the country.
During the trial, 60kg hydrogen was generated and dispensed via 150 refuels. The machines ran for between 12 and 18 hours between refills.
The trial forms part of Marks and Spencer's 'Plan A' initiative – clearly much more than carrier bags and clothes recycling – and aims to deliver zero emission vehicles with superior performance and a two-minute refuel time.
Darrell Stein, M&S logistics director, said the trial was about lessening the carbon footprint of its warehouse operations, and to achieve its goals the company "must continue to innovate and push the boundaries in every part of our business". The trial was said to be a success and the data will now be analysed and compared to electric-powered kit – notably the space requirements for battery charging rooms as well as the health and safety benefits of no longer handling batteries.
Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, commented: "The involvement of companies such as M&S is essential to developing commercially viable hydrogen solutions for the materials handling industry."
What do the forklift suppliers say? Briggs Equipment, distributor of Yale forklift trucks, is a firm believer in hydrogen fuel cells for forklifts. Technical manager Trevor Clifton says the M&S trial was a key event: "The results have been so positive, with reports of reliability, long life and high levels of productivity, that it is clear fuel cell technology will have a major role to play in the materials handling sector of the future."
As well as hydrogen fuel cells, other alternative power sources include hybrid trucks and lithium ion batteries. Truck manufacturer Toyota Material Handling Europe stated last year that it is taking a "portfolio" approach to new fuel technology, ensuring that it has a foot in all camps. Tony Wallis, UK operations director, confirms this, telling WM: "There are three technologies that we are currently developing and trialling across the globe: hybrid engine and battery technology in Japan; hydrogen fuel cell technology in the US; and lithium ion battery technology in the UK and across Europe."
For Toyota, he says, alternative fuels must be commercially viable as well as sustainable.
Toyota's hybrid forklift truck is being sold in Japan, but not elsewhere as yet. "The challenge with internal combustion engines is to reduce fuel consumption – which in turn will result in lower running costs, less fossil fuel use and reduced exhaust and CO2 emissions," says Wallis. "Our trials in Japan show that fuel consumption in this Toyota hybrid truck is halved compared to conventional IC trucks. CO2 emissions are also halved."
Electric forklifts provide a different challenge in terms of battery recharging, which takes from six to 12 hours. "Hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to address the constraints of both IC engine trucks and electric trucks by providing a productive truck, refuelling in a matter of minutes for continuous use and with no CO2 exhaust emissions," Wallis points out. "Yet, to become a mainstream fuel in the future, producing sufficient quantities of hydrogen in a cost-effective way with low environmental impact is a challenge that needs to be met. Hydrogen cell technology is currently being trialled in the US where the infrastructure to support the technology is more developed than in other countries. When this has been evaluated we will consider the commercial and future applications."
For Toyota truck users in the UK, there could be a long wait for fuel cells or hybrids so the swiftest benefit may come from lithium ion batteries. Indeed, Wallis believes this is likely to have "the greatest impact on businesses in the UK and Europe". Last September, Toyota announced a trial with Sainsbury's which is ongoing and features a range of warehouse equipment, including heavy-duty powered pallet trucks and order pickers. These trucks are often required to work multiple shifts, so battery efficiency and charging is a priority for operational planning.
"The trials are going very well and the commercial and environmental impact is now being evaluated," says Wallis, adding that it is important for Toyota to be able to deliver a practical solution for working environments across a broad range of equipment that would deliver cost and efficiency improvement.
Jungheinrich is another truck manufacturer that has set out its stall with lithium ion. The company was the first to offer a lithium ion truck, when it launched a powered pallet truck last year. After successful trials with Tesco, the EJE 112i is now on the market. Charging is quick and simple – it takes 30 minutes to deliver a 50% charge and the battery is fully charged within 80 minutes.
Linde is also keen on lithum. Product manager Jana Vitkova says the manufacturer has already developed prototypes for pallet and forklift trucks. "We recognise [lithium ion technology] as being a possible future market requirement and will work with customers to understand how this suits their needs."
As for hybrid trucks, the position is clear. Vitkova says Linde sees "no viable economic benefit for our customers," adding that technological advances with IC trucks to make them quieter and more fuel efficient delivers the best "economical situation for our customers".
Fuel cells do find favour:?the company put two fuel cell forklifts into a Linde Gas plant two years ago. The technology for the 3-tonne capacity trucks was developed with Hydrogenics, a Canadian fuel cell manufacturer. In place of the usual 80-volt battery, the forklifts have a fuel cell and a tank which stores 1.6kg of hydrogen gas at 350 bar. The trucks are used for 1,000 hours per year and, says Linde, another 15 warehouse trucks with fuel cells will soon follow.
Vitkova points out, however: "Demand is still limited due to the high costs of fuel cells and filling stations."
It is interesting, given its ownership, that truck manufacturer Still takes a very different view of hybrid technology to sister business Linde. Still launched its RX70 hybrid truck – based on the RX70 diesel version – at German materials handling exhibition CeMAT last year.
The diesel truck features 'ultra caps' – high performance double layer capacitors – mounted at the rear of the truck. These are charged with the energy released when the truck brakes, providing more power for acceleration. The energy collected when braking is used by the generator which is also propelled by the diesel engine to power the electric drive motor. All the related systems are linked up by the electronic controller which also controls charging and discharging of the additional energy storage. Still says the ultra caps reduce the load on the diesel engine by approximately 30%.
Potato and vegetable business Branston is using nine of the Still hybrid trucks at its prepared foods factory near Lincoln. Andy Peacock, logistics and supply manager, says: "The leases on our forklifts were coming to an end, and we knew we wanted to upgrade to something better. We wanted something that was not only more cost efficient, but also more environmentally-friendly. The RX70 is a hybrid of a traditional diesel engine and an electric motor. It has already won an industry award for its environmental benefits, and as a company, this is something that is very important to us."
Branston was sold on the truck's green benefits: the RX70 is said to use 20% less fuel than a traditional diesel truck and cuts carbon emissions by 60%. The company will replace the rest of the fleet at Lincoln when the leases are up for renewal later this year.
Fuelled by benefits
Briggs Equipment's Trevor Clifton points to several crucial benefits behind fuel cell technology:
- It allows more power to be packed into a small area (fuel cells can be stacked)
- Minimal environmental pollution and virtually silent operation of the trucks
- A truck can run for eight hours or more on a single fill
- Maintenance costs are 1.5 times lower than standard batteries
- Refuelling is fast, so recharging labour costs are eight times lower than for batteries and the cells do not deteriorate between refuelling
- Waste heat generated can be captured and used elsewhere in the factory or warehouse.
Briggs Equipment (UK) Ltd
ITM Power plc
Jungheinrich (GB) Ltd
Linde Material Handling
Toyota Material Handling UK Ltd
Yale Materials Handling UK Ltd
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