NITCO -- A secret ingredient is fueling innovation in the forklift industry – hydrogen! Actually, hydrogen fuel cell technology is becoming less of a secret every day as more companies invest in this clean, sustainable fuel source that is generated using the single most abundant element in the universe.
Yes, hydrogen fuel helped America put a man on the moon. Now it is rapidly changing the conversation about fuel options in the forklift industry, with many major players betting on hydrogen fuel to rapidly expand its currently very small share of the market.
In 2014, Walmart announced the purchase of 1,738 hydrogen-powered units for an estimated $50 million, adding to 535 hydrogen fuel cell lift trucks already in its fleet. The mega-retailer cited cost effectiveness to justify the investment. But such corporations increasingly see the benefit of establishing a greener footprint – both to project a more appealing profile to socially conscious consumers and because it can be good for the bottom line.
Environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cells emit only small amounts of heat and water. But switching to hydrogen is no simple solution since the fuel must either be delivered or produced on-site.
However, ingenuity is in the air.
Forklift giant Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc. has purchased Nuvera, a Billerica, Mass.-based company that specializes in hydrogen fuel cell technology and “turnkey” systems that enable companies to produce and dispense their own hydrogen fuel.
The deal positions Hyster-Yale to become the first forklift manufacturer to integrate fuel cell technology across large parts of its materials handling equipment portfolio. According to a statement, Hyster-Yale expects to be able to offer customers “an integrated, factory-fitted fuel-cell solution as well as associated hydrogen generation and delivery capability.”
A federal tax credit of roughly 30 percent for hydrogen fuel cells is currently set to expire at the end of 2016. But most industry insiders believe hydrogen is poised to capture a much larger share of the overall market for materials handling equipment.
Conventional wisdom has been that it takes a fleet of 25 or so vehicles to justify the expense of setting up refueling infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell-equipped forklifts. One reason is that hydrogen fuel makes most sense for companies running multi-shift operations that are slowed down by the time-consuming tasks of constantly changing and charging batteries.
But providers like Nuvera insist that is rapidly changing now that it is increasingly possible for even modest-sized operations to produce hydrogen fuel, commonly made from natural gas and water through a process called steam methane reforming.
Nuvera produces PowerEdge, a “drop-in” hydrogen fuel cell system designed to replace the battery in an electric forklift, and PowerTap, an on-site hydrogen fuel generation and distribution system.
“We offer an on-site solution that generates hydrogen from natural gas and water, and what this does is provide an economical source of hydrogen at a smaller scale,” said Gus Block, Nuvera’s director of marketing, who cited increased usage among mid-sized fleets in an article on the Modern Materials Handling website.
By coupling its PowerEdge product with its PowerTap generation system, Nuvera offers customers the ability to:
- Retrofit electric forklifts by replacing the battery with a drop-in hydrogen fuel cell unit.
- Refuel forklifts in just minutes at a dispensing station that looks very much like a gasoline pump.
- Realize substantial savings for warehouse operations that waste hours of downtime constantly charging and swapping out electric batteries.
- Free up valuable floor space once used to accommodate a battery room.
- Maintain constant power (while electric forklifts lose power as the battery discharges, hydrogen fuel cells maintain a consistent voltage).
Hyster-Yale, in partnership with Nuvera, intends to build hydrogen fuel cell technology into the next generation of lift trucks, and from there to develop applications for the automobile and aerospace industries.
“Hydrogen is portable electricity,” explained Scott Blanchet, Nuvera’s vice president of technology development. The goal is to make it “as convenient as (fossil) fuel.” Blanchet believes the forklift industry is leading the way in the hydrogen revolution. “This industry, in a microcosm, is a model for the larger transportation system.”
Many observers believe that as companies like Nuvera continue to expand the range of turnkey solutions, smaller and mid-sized operations will be better able to reap the productivity benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
At Northland Industrial Truck Co., better known throughout New England as NITCO, our forklift experts are always available to discuss how hydrogen fuel cell technology might benefit your business. Contact us today for friendly, straightforward advice.