As fuel-cell technology makes progress in research labs, forklifts are serving as a proving grounds. Crown Equipment Corp. has developed a range of fuel-cell vehicles, striving to take the technology beyond research into production.
The material handling equipment maker is working on a number of fuel-cell projects. It is teamed up with other members of the Ohio Fuel Cell Council to perform studies funded partially by a $1 million grant from the state of Ohio.
Those projects cover a range of products that use many different types of fuel cells. “We have a wide range of lift trucks, and no one supplier can address all their requirements, so we’re dealing with four fuel-cell providers,” said Eric Jensen, R&D Manager at Crown.
One positive change he’s seeing is a move beyond research projects to production capabilities. When fuel-cell suppliers do make this transition, forklifts are likely to be one of the early adopters. “Forklift owners typically own the fuel supply, so they can gain the benefits directly,” said Jensen. Bridgestone and Wal-Mart are currently trying out different vehicles, he added.
Other observers also note that interest in forklifts is high. Mike Hicks, a Committee Chair for the recent 2008 Fuel Cell Seminar & Exposition, said this was one of the focal areas in presentations. “In materials handling, forklifts are really gaining momentum,” said Hicks, who is also a Fuel Cell Engineer at IdaTech LLC.
Another change is that fuel-cell lifetimes are improving. Lift trucks usually operate for around 20,000 hours, which was far beyond the lifetime of fuel cells. But that is improving rapidly.
"We’ve seen very strong gains in durability and lifetime over the past few years,” said Jensen. “They’re over 7000 hours, which is much closer to vehicle lifetimes.”
Though the technology is advancing, potential customers still have to make some trade-offs.
Jensen noted that there is still a pricing premium over conventional vehicles with lead-acid batteries. But reducing the time and space associated with these batteries is prompting many to examine fuel cells.
Today, forklifts are typically run until batteries get down to around a 20% charge, Jensen explained. Operators then drive to chargers, spend around half an hour removing the battery and then install another. Batteries take eight hours to recharge, with an equal cool-down time before they are ready.
That means plenty of floor space is needed for batteries, which typically weigh several hundred pounds. In large facilities that run non-stop, the time, cost, and space requirements of batteries provide a strong economic incentive for fuel cells, said Jensen.
“Operators can refuel their truck whenever they have time. It only takes three to five minutes,” said Jensen. He added that forklifts provide a good reliability test platform for fuel cells because the components are often subject to harsh vibrations, as when metal wheels roll across rough concrete floors.