2020-01-16

From pilot project to industry standard

Hydrogen is increasingly being used as a sustainable energy source, including in the intralogistics industry. The KION Group brands are demonstrating their ambition to lead in this area by setting new standards: The standout example is STILL, which, in France, has supplied Europe’s largest fleet ever of fuel cell trucks

In a 58,000-sq. meter (approximately 624,000 sq. feet) site, operated by French retail giant Carrefour, near the small French town of Vendin-le-Vieil, 137 trucks buzz around transporting goods, producing no emissions. The warehouse, which belongs to Europe’s second-largest retailer, was selected for a pilot project to trial the use of fuel cell technology on a large scale. In addition to STILL, project partners include US-based PlugPower, which specializes in hydrogen fuel cell systems, and Air Liquide, a French manufacturer of industrial gases.

The large-scale project illustrates the depth of expertise within the KION Group when it comes to fuel cells. STILL has been implementing hydrogen projects with a wide range of trucks since as far back as 2003. Linde Material Handling’s experience with fuel cell drives dates back even further, to 1997. The two brands are now pooling their expertise in KION Group’s New Energy Systems unit. “We have been investing a lot of time and effort into the fuel cell for a long time now,” explains Carsten Harnisch, a vice president of New Energy Systems at KION, adding, “It plays an important role in our energy concept, which allows us to respond to a wide range of customer requirements. In a tough 3-shift schedule, for example, customers need to maintain truck uptime at a very high level.”

Simple and practical, fast and clean

The ultra-rapid refueling process is one reason why the trucks have very little downtime. It takes just three minutes to top them back up at the stations installed specifically for this purpose. This was a particularly key benefit for Carrefour, which had relied on a fleet powered by lead-acid batteries. “The tedious task of changing a conventional lead-acid battery has now been eliminated,” notes Kevin Roche, who works as an order picker for the retailer. “It’s a much cleaner process too, even though previously the batteries were changed with the assistance of mechanized or semi-automatic systems.” Thus, the fuel cell trucks are also suitable for use in industries where hygiene is critical, such as pharmaceuticals or food.

The trucks’ green credentials offer an additional benefit. Hydrogen drives produce zero emissions during operation, which makes them ideal for use in closed warehouses. “After trialing the trucks for a little over a year, we now know that we can prevent around 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere every year,” says Alain Audegond, director of the Carrefour site in Vendin-le-Vieil. These savings are contingent on the hydrogen being derived from regenerative sources, such as biogas or electrolysis using solar or wind power. Hydrogen fuel cells also score highly in terms of environmental impact because they can be recycled and do not contain any toxic acids or pollutants. The comparatively long lifespan of fuel cells – around five years depending on use – also helps to reduce unnecessary waste in the long term.

“We are proud that we have successfully installed Europe’s largest fleet ever of hydrogen-powered industrial trucks,” says Björn Grünke, a product manager for Energy Systems at STILL. The size of the warehouse, the throughput of goods and the resulting quantity of industrial trucks that were needed made Carrefour the perfect candidate for the pilot project. Though fuel cell systems are economical even for fleets of 20 to 50 trucks, the effects are scalable, which means that the larger the fleet, the greater the savings. The use of hydrogen drives pays off even more in companies that use the gas in their production processes and already have a supply infrastructure in place.

“We are proud that we have successfully installed Europe’s largest fleet ever of hydrogen-powered industrial trucks.”

Björn Grünke, Product Manager, Energy Systems, STILL

Linde MH pioneers fuel cell technology with BMW

Linde Material Handling was also early in recognizing the huge potential offered by the fuel cell. The company began developing commercially viable solutions back in 1997, and was the first intralogistics manufacturer to do so. Volume production of fuel cell trucks got underway in 2010. Today, around 80 percent of all Linde products, including the Linde Roadster, are available with this climate-friendly drive variant.

Linde MH is now bringing its deep expertise in fuel cell technology to bear in an extensive collaboration with the BMW Group. The companies are looking to implement the hydrogen fuel cell as a drive variant in intralogistics on a broad basis. The other partners in the consortium include the Technical University of Munich, which is responsible for the research side of the project.

The testing ground for this sustainable drive technology is BMW Group’s Leipzig plant. Hydrogen-powered Linde forklift trucks and tugger trains have been in operation here since December 2013. In early December 2018, an initial trial fleet of 11 trucks was joined by 70 hydrogen-powered tugger trains, making this one of the largest fuel cell fleets in Europe. Following a year of extensive tests in real-world production conditions at the factory, the verdict was clear: “In practice, the expectations have been fulfilled over an extended period at BMW and the benefits are obvious,” said Carsten Harnisch following his most recent visit to the Leipzig plant. “The trucks are currently being operated in a 2-shift schedule. However, switching to a 3-shift schedule is possible at any point and does not require any changes to the fleet or the processes. The intralogistics side is thus perfectly aligned with production requirements. No other existing technology offers this degree of flexibility.” The ease of operation even led BMW to consider switching to the alternative drive technology in other plants. At its German site in Dingolfing, plans to transition to a fuel cell-powered fleet are already at an advanced stage.

The future is H2Ready

The collaboration between Linde Material Handling and BMW is supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The ministry wants to advance the development of climate-friendly hydrogen and fuel cell technology and make it a true competitor in the market. Consequently, the focus is not just on development and testing, but also on how easy the technology is to use daily and how economical it is. Infrastructure, servicing and the provision of training on the operation of hydrogen fuel cells are other key aspects. The end goal is to establish a standard, H2Ready, which can be applied throughout the industry. It will allow other manufacturers to use this innovative technology in new or retro-fitted trucks. Just like KION has done with Carrefour and BMW.

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