In what’s seen as a milestone in the development of forklift truck design and technology, a unique collaboration has seen the production of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered truck that relies entirely on renewable energy sources.
Similar projects have used hydrogen fuel generated using fossil fuels but a research effort involving Briggs Equipment and Honda has seen the development of a fully integrated system that generates hydrogen from solar power via an on-site electrolyser.
Whilst traditional methods of hydrogen production call into question the environmental benefits of the technology, the new system developed at Honda’s Swindon manufacturing facility ensures that energy inputs are all clean and renewable with zero emissions.
Richard Close, Briggs Equipment CEO explained how the consortium has worked hard with Honda to produce commercial volumes of truly ‘green’ hydrogen to power the converted Yale trucks in operation at the Swindon plant.
"These hybrid trucks are the first to use lithium battery technology with a hydrogen fuel cell to replace standard lead-acid batteries, resulting in materials handling equipment that produces zero emissions at the point of use," he said.
"The project has proved what can be achieved. The challenge is now to extend this as widely as possible."
The modified Yale trucks are configured to use a small lithium-ion battery which partners with the fuel cell to ensure that the battery remains charged. The battery can then operate as a normal power unit for all mobility and lift functions, supplied from its compact battery source. The hydrogen fuel cell acts as an on-board charger allowing the truck to work more efficiently as its normal routine of battery switching and remote charging is avoided.
Refuelled from a conveniently sited fuelling station within the production area the truck takes around five minutes to recharge its hydrogen cell, reducing downtime to a minimum.
Although this breakthrough is seen as a proving ground for future development in emission free forklift technology, it is recognised that in its current form this process would not be viable for small fleets and would need the benefit of scale and further efficiencies to make it universally realistic.
Richard said: "The benefits are clear. Gone are the big lead-acid batteries and their need for space, replacement and maintenance. Maintenance alone is around one-and-a-half times lower. Productivity is also clearly a plus factor, allowing cost benefits to begin to stack up.
"There is also the potential to replace diesel engines and avoid an ever tightening legislative determination to bear down on NOx and particulate emissions, plus the potential price and supply volatility of hydrocarbons fuels."
Fuel cells in forklift applications of this kind can have a service life of around 12 years which exceeds a current typical truck life, suggesting that an opportunity may open for trucks themselves to undergo further engineering to also offer extended service duration.
To date the project consortium has focused on creating a whole system, from solar as its source to hydrogen as the output fuel, to run road vehicles – converted vans running normal duty patterns – as well as forklift trucks operating on-site. In the future it also intends to investigate hydrogen as a means to provide power to the manufacturing plant.