The perks of using fuel cell battery replacement technology in lift trucks are significant. Battery rooms and battery maintenance can be replaced with productive space and time. Eliminating battery changes, refueling in minutes and consistent power output can boost productivity. And, of course, it’s appealing that water vapor is a fuel cell’s only form of exhaust. Yet, the cost of the infrastructure to support these gains makes fuel cell systems viable primarily for large, multi-shift fleets. The Walmarts, Coca-Colas and BMWs of the world have enjoyed these benefits, but it will still be some time for the single-shift fleet of 25 lift trucks.
That said, creators of fuel cell technology are aiming to move in that direction: one lift truck model and application at a time. Modern recently spoke to Gary Schubak, director of sales for Ballard Power Systems, about the evolution of the technology. Ballard is a producer of fuel cell stacks used in fuel cell battery replacement units sold by Plug Power. According to Schubak, the early adoption of fuel cells by high-profile customers has proven both the concept and the hardware.
“We have a very good understanding of the life cycle of this technology,” says Schubak. “We’ve got products that have been out in the field for five years and we’re seeing the life cycle and maintenance objectives vetted out.”
Schubak says the battery replacement units are designed to last for seven to 10 years, the standard economic life of a lift truck. Currently, they require a refit at the halfway point—about three and a half years—at which time the membranes inside the fuel cell stacks are replaced. “A big focus for us is on the durability of the products. Over time, we hope to eliminate the need for a refit within those seven years.”
Fuel cell providers are also looking to push out that seven-year window so that some day a single fuel cell unit might serve the economic life of two lift trucks back to back, Schubak adds. As the life cycle horizon increases, the number of replacement batteries that would have been required is factored into the ROI.
In the meantime, new products are chipping away at the applications and lift truck models that can be served by fuel cells. Recently, Plug Power announced the release of product that filled the final gap in fuel cells’s ability to serve Class 1 lift trucks. This can prevent the need for “dual infrastructure” in an application. Similarly, one Class 3 product that was over-specified for lighter duty applications was released in a less costly model that allowed it to penetrate a larger market.
“These are examples of how product solutions are evolving into the market and driving increased traction within the materials handling space,” says Schubak. When asked what the future holds, he says one of the larger potential developments remains in the hands of lift truck manufacturers. “If one of them comes out with a purpose-built fuel cell lift truck, that could be a game changer in this space,” he says.