Future fuels? 14 December 2013

Materials handling is a sweet spot for hydrogen fuel cells, according to one expert. They've been introduced in the US, with proven benefits, so why haven't they taken off in the UK? Laura Cork reports

Hydrogen fuel cells have been hailed as a breakthrough for forklift truck power, but as yet have failed to make inroads into the UK materials handling market. In contrast, the market for these trucks continues to grow in the US.

Why? There are several reasons, notably financial, but more on that later. Well placed to comment are truck manufacturers like Yale (and sister company Hyster), owned by US-based Nacco Materials Handling. It, like others, is pinning its hopes on the fact that its early investment, engineering collaboration and testing in the US will place it in an ideal position to meet customer needs in the UK and Europe.

Vast distribution operations may be the first obvious port of call for this new technology, but there are already other examples in the manufacturing sector. Yale's customers in the US, for instance, include Nestle Waters, which is using 32 Yale counterbalance trucks fuelled by hydrogen cell units at its bottling plant in Dallas.

Other US manufacturing plants operating fuel cell forklifts span a range of sectors and include Bridgestone, BMW and Procter & Gamble. Yet while fuel cells are gaining traction with our manufacturing cousins across the pond, in the UK we seem unable to progress beyond sporadic trials – which, to date, have not led to widespread adoption.

A potentially groundbreaking project, however, is underway at Honda's car manufacturing plant in Swindon. BOC, one of three hydrogen suppliers in the UK – the others are Air Liquide and Air Products – has built a hydrogen refuelling station at the car plant, which is the first public-access station in the UK.

Part funded by local economic developer Forward Swindon in collaboration with BOC and Honda, and more recently the government's Technology Strategy Board, the station is now using on-site solar power to produce hydrogen sustainably. And the gas is being used to fuel several vehicle types – including forklift trucks, supplied to Honda by Briggs Equipment. No detail is available on performance benefits yet, as this is a two-and-a-half year project that kicked off at the end of 2012.

However, Nick Rolf, BOC's innovation manager for hydrogen systems, said at the project launch: "This will be the UK's first and longest demonstration of solar hydrogen production linked to transport and materials handling applications – the two early commercial markets for hydrogen. The partners will be able to use this project as a shop window to attract potential customers in the region and beyond." So window shopping just became more interesting.

Carbon clouding judgment
Hydrogen production is a contentious issue, with many arguing, quite rightly, that the process of making – not to mention transporting – the gas is inefficient, in terms of carbon emissions. Electrolysers use electrical energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the oxygen then vented off and the hydrogen compressed and stored for use. So creating electrical energy by renewable means – as in the solar-powered example at Honda – results in green hydrogen and blows away the carbon cloud currently hampering its take up.

Trevor Clifton, technical manager at Briggs Equipment and chairman of the British Industrial Truck Association's technical committee, also points out that there are safety and regulatory issues. "Work is being done now to identify where current regulations conflict with, or were not drawn up with, hydrogen in mind. Think about what would happen if petrol were discovered today and the reaction to its dispensing and use. The framework of regulations we have today reflect experience we've obtained over 100 years."

Clifton explains that the materials used in hydrogen installations have to be compatible with the gas. "Manufacturing standards have to be high because of the gas pressures involved," he says. "Current fuel cells need to store about 1.5 kilos of gas to give reasonable shift times, meaning storage pressures of 350 bar. Already, the industry is looking to move to 700 bar and this will be the future standard."

Barriers to adoption
Many national headlines on fuel cells continue to focus on the automotive sector. But, says Dr Peter Speers, a scientist and consultant from the Transport Knowledge Transfer Network (TKTN): "Materials handling is one of the softer targets, with fuel cells more suited to replace batteries on forklift trucks. That's why it's one of the sweet spots for deployment."

He cites several reasons for the UK's slow progress – notably the fact that we don't yet have a mainstream fuel cell supplier. Also, he adds, political clout has propelled its deployment in the US since the financial crash. "Obama's recovery act and tax breaks put a lot of money into catalysing early market fuel cell activities, a key area of which was material handling. The US government directly supported about 500 forklift truck deployments in 2009/10." Indeed, by the end of 2011, 3,000 fuel cell materials handling units were in use in the US – compared with just 1% of that number in Europe.

The UK government directs most of its technology funding via the Technology Strategy Board. As a business-led organisation, says the government, it is better placed than politicians to make decisions. The TSB is working to overcome the early market barriers, says Speers, and this month is launching a competition to address the problems associated with measuring hydrogen metering and dispensing.

Aside from the lack of a home-grown fuel cell supplier, though, considerations for forklift fleet buyers are the increased cost of the equipment, the intensity of the application and, crucially, the price of hydrogen.

"There's a trade-off with a fuel cell forklift," explains Speers. "There is a higher upfront cost, but that's balanced with a less frequent need for refuelling and the fact that the fuelling infrastructure takes up a lot less space than traditional battery charging systems. So, if it's an intensive 24/7 operation, you are prepared to pay the higher initial cost and can negotiate a decent hydrogen price, that's [good]."

The larger the fleet, of course, the more powerful the negotiating position. "There are several issues to consider, but the show-stoppers for UK industry are always the price of hydrogen and the intensity of the operation."

How much does hydrogen cost? Speers says the EU target is around €10/kilo, but UK buyers will pay whatever they can negotiate, unlike their American counterparts who have the additional bargaining tool of volume.

Hydrogen will bring benefits for smaller fleets, particularly if businesses are smarter and work together to buy in bulk. "If you can get some grant funding to offset the initial cost of deployment and can negotiate a decent hydrogen price, then you have a chance with a smaller fleet," says Speers.

The UK materials handling sector needs an injection of realism, he believes: "Hydrogen is cleaner than batteries, takes up much less space and delivers real operational advantages. However, we need a reality check here in the UK: some people have made bold statements about it being an economic no-brainer, but we need to think about the cost of units and the price of hydrogen, so the size of the operation is key."

Laura Cork

Related Companies
Briggs Equipment (UK) Ltd
Hyster-Yale Group
Linde Heavy Truck Division Ltd

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