Fuel cells

Hydrogen: The future is here

Fuel cells are still a thing of the future; they are an experiment, a vision. Right?



“If you’d asked me three years ago whether fuel cells were worth using, I’d have answered ‘no’,” says Mark Hanke. He is head of the industrial truck design department at KION’s Linde brand company and oversees the H2IntraDrive project, in which eleven hydrogen-powered trucks are being deployed in the production process at BMW. “I now think they can pay off in the long term.”

While the automotive industry is still conducting tests, preparing designs and drawing up schedules, the logistics industry is at a more advanced stage. In fact, Linde presented a truck fitted with a fuel cell 14 years ago. And a prototype of a fuel cell truck from KION’s other premium brand, STILL, made its debut at Munich Airport eleven years ago. “We have been at a new stage of development since 2013,” says Christian Baerwolff, head of international product management at STILL. Since then, whole fleets of hydrogen-powered forklift trucks have been deployed in warehouses in Germany. In the United States, around 5,000 of these trucks are being used by companies such as the world’s largest retailer Walmart, BMW, Cisco and Daimler. “These are not demo fleets,” stresses Hanke. “These companies are relying entirely on fuel cells. They no longer have a back-up option.”

Quick to refuel, long range – no problem

In a fuel cell, the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen generates electricity which powers the truck’s electric drive. The benefit compared with the lead-acid battery normally used in an electric drive is that the fuel cell does not require a lengthy recharging process. The hydrogen tank can be refilled in a matter of minutes. Range is not an issue, either. One tank is sufficient for several hours of driving. Moreover, the system only emits ‘hot air’ and water, which is either blown out as steam or is collected in a tank in liquid form.

This is an extremely attractive concept for companies that deploy their trucks in multiple shifts. Electric forklift trucks often need to be plugged in for ten hours at a time, or a huge amount of effort is needed to replace the two-tonne batteries at the end of each shift – a lot of time is wasted in any case. The lead-acid batteries also require maintenance. By contrast, filling up with hydrogen is faster and more efficient and can be fitted in easily around other activities. “Fuel cells are even more appealing to companies where hydrogen is a by-product of the manufacturing process,” says Baerwolff.

“Nearly at production standard”

But it is a question not just of efficiency but also of sustainability. If the hydrogen itself is not produced in an environmentally friendly manner, the fuel cell cannot be considered a clean form of energy. Although only steam is emitted, the energy source itself was provided by burning fossil fuels. Nonetheless, the hydrogen can also serve as a storage medium for energy generated using alternative sustainable methods, such as wind power or solar technology.

In the E-Log Biofleet project, logistics firm DB Schenker is currently testing a type of hydrogen production at its site in Linz in which the methane from biogas is converted into hydrogen. In this case, the fuel cell is efficient but really is eco-friendly as well. It has been fitted in a T20SP pallet truck from Linde. As far as the technology itself is concerned, vice president business line new trucks at Linde, Ralf Dingeldein, believes the fuel cell is “nearly at production standard”. Overall, Linde sees itself as being well equipped for the future, having set up a product management function for innovative drive systems six years ago. Since then, Linde has been promoting these systems, both within the company and externally. The technical challenges have been resolved, at least with regard to indoor operation.

Technical challenges

The same cannot be said for outdoor operation. The electronic components for the cells, which Linde is using in projects such as H2IntraDrive, still require some fine-tuning. Using these fuel cells where they are exposed to dust and rain is not recommended. Although a cell can be built with a sealed casing, it is much more complex from a technical perspective. This is also one of the issues on which car makers are working.

Another challenge for the fuel cell is the short-term peak performance required when the drive motors accelerate and heavy loads are lifted at the same time. That is why all the drives developed so far have been hybrid systems in which the fuel cell provides the baseload and a lithium-ion-battery or capacitors cover the peaks. Baerwolff does not think this situation will change: “The fuel cell does not have to be used by itself. The drives of the future will be based on modular concepts.”

Walmart orders a further 1,000 fuel cell systems

The fuel cell is one possible solution that can be combined with other drive concepts. And it is no longer the stuff of science fiction. If a company like Walmart has just ordered another 1,000 new fuel cell systems, it makes Hanke stop and think: “They’re not doing it just to make sure they have green credentials come what may – it seems to be a financially viable decision.” And this is ultimately what the H2IntraDrive project is about: does it pay off for BMW to use the trucks, once the tax breaks and market prices for hydrogen have been taken into account? There are indications that this is the case. “If it makes economic sense for customers in the United States, then why should it be any different in the EU?” says Hanke.