Hydrogen Fuel-Cells For Vehicles

Earlier, on August 12, we took a look at whether hydrogen could be used in cars and trucks, and the problems associated with using hydrogen in these vehicles – But, are there related applications?

The four major problems with using hydrogen are: storage on the vehicle; producing hydrogen; transporting hydrogen to service stations; and the current extremely high cost of fuel cells.

It’s time to look at where hydrogen fuel-cells are being used now, to see how they are fitting into niche applications. Experience gained from these niche applications may presage possible future use in cars and trucks — especially if the cost of fuel-cells come down.

One niche application has been the use of hydrogen fuel-cell powered fork-lift trucks and material-handling trucks in factories and warehouses. Hydrogen is stored on these vehicles at 5,000 psi.

Three recent examples have been the BMW factory in Greer, South Carolina, Sysco Corporation’s new warehouse in Houston, Texas and the Central Grocer Inc.’s distribution center in Joliet, Illinois.

Hydrogen, fuel-cell powered material-handling vehicles have an advantage over battery powered fork-lifts, pallet trucks and other material-handling vehicles. It takes less than three minutes to refuel a fork-lift truck with hydrogen, while it takes twenty minutes to change out a discharged lead-acid battery pack. Operator costs are cut because of the reduced downtime and the need to no longer have a fully staffed battery-charging center.

They also eliminate fumes and toxic materials from the workplace.

The problems and costs associated with disposing of lead-acid batteries are also eliminated.

Information on the cost of the fuel-cell isn’t readily available, so it’s not possible to know whether these applications are cost effective. One downside to material-handling applications is that the liquid hydrogen has to be transported to the factory or warehouse, and then stored as a liquid until it is vaporized and piped to fork-lift filling stations.

A second niche application has been the use of hydrogen fuel-cell powered farm tractors.

This has the interesting twist of using hydrogen produced on the farm from waste.

New Holland has been promoting the “energy independent farm” where farmers produce hydrogen from either electrolysis, or from natural gas reforming where the natural gas is produced from fermenting by-products and biomass.

Hydrogen fuel-cell powered tractors have the same advantages as do fork-lifts, such as eliminating the need to recharge lead-acid batteries and disposing of them when they are worn out.

The NH2 tractor is a 106-hp tractor that can do everything a comparable gasoline powered tractor can do.

These niche applications have the advantage of cost savings that allow the hydrogen fuel-cell to be reasonably competitive, though the elimination of CO2 emissions is also driving their use.

Hydrogen fuel-cells have made good progress in niche applications.

Whether the price of hydrogen fuel cells will come down sufficiently to allow them to be competitive for use in cars and pick-up trucks remains to be seen.

I’ll be writing about this in January, after the Holidays. Are PHEVs the best strategy?

[Scroll down for earlier articles.]

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