Material Handling and the Environment

Hydrogen Forklifts

Studies into alternative fuels for lift trucks heat up.

In recent months, researchers have maintained their quest for forklifts that can be powered by means other than traditional batteries and fuels. Hydrogen remains a popular choice, as the examples below illustrate.

Hydrogen Forklift Demos
A two-year hydrogen- powered forklift demonstration program is slated to begin in May in Pennsylvania. Air Products, the world's largest supplier of merchant hydrogen, has developed an indoor hydrogen fueling station technology infrastructure to fuel 20 hydrogen fuel cell-powered forklifts for daily warehouse operations at the Defense Distribution Depot Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (DDSP). Air Products retrofitted 20 battery-powered Class I forklifts with fuel cell power packs made by General Hydrogen, and DDSP personnel will operate the fuel cell-powered forklifts alongside lead-acid battery forklifts in daily operations to compare costs and operational characteristics. Data will be collected and analyzed to support the development and commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell technologies for Department of Defense operations. “Hydrogen-powered forklifts provide an excellent opportunity to continue to grow the potential applications for the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier,” says Tom Joseph, Air Products business development manager for hydrogen energy systems. “We believe the program will demonstrate that hydrogen-powered forklifts will show productivity improvements during active warehouse operations, and also show economic and environmental benefits at the same time.”

Air Products mobile hydrogen fuelers can be used by forklift operators to fill the truck's tank.
Air Products mobile hydrogen fuelers can be used by forklift operators to fill the truck's tank.

Air Products has identified the material handling industry as a near-term market opportunity with productivity, energy and environmental gains to be achieved through introducing fuel cell technologies. Air Products says that hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks will need refueling only once or twice daily, depending on use, which usually can be completed in less than five minutes. In contrast, traditional battery-powered lift trucks must be placed temporarily out of operation for battery replacement and required battery recharging usually every four to six hours. Air Products also indicates that hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks provide consistent power strength during use and do not have decreased performance as required battery change out and recharge time nears. Further, hydrogen-powered fuel cell lift trucks are more environmentally friendly, without associated lead-acid battery storage and disposal issues.

Air Products has done similar work at a manufacturing and assembly plant in Tennessee since January 2006 and a grocery chain warehouse in Texas since March 2007, projects which include providing indoor hydrogen fueling station infrastructure for fueling hydrogen-powered forklifts and automated guided vehicles. It is also participating in a six-location Fuel Cell Lift Truck Demonstration Project in the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge in Columbia, South Carolina. More information on Air Products' hydrogen fueling station technologies and activities can be found at

On-Vehicle Hydrogen Fuel System for Lift Trucks
ExxonMobil is partnering with QuestAir Technologies, Plug Power and Israel's Ben Gurion University to commercialize on-vehicle hydrogen production systems for use in a fuel cell-powered lift truck. Under the arrangements, Plug Power will commercialize technologies developed by ExxonMobil, QuestAir and Ben Gurion University that take liquid fuel—gasoline, diesel, ethanol or biodiesel—and convert them into hydrogen on board the vehicle where it will be used in a fuel cell powertrain. “By developing a system that converts liquid hydrocarbons into hydrogen directly on a vehicle without the need for storage, we hope to demonstrate significant infrastructure, logistics and cost advantages compared to other hydrogen vehicle systems,” says Dr. Emil Jacobs, vice president of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering. “Since this system does not require changes to fuel delivery infrastructure—unlike compressed hydrogen fuel systems—this overcomes one of the key challenges manufacturers face in developing hydrogen vehicles for potential consumer use.” Plug Power expects the development to take a minimum of three years.

Youth teams from four countries participated in the International Youth Fuel Cell Competition held in San Antonio.
Youth teams from four countries participated in the International Youth Fuel Cell Competition held in San Antonio.

International Yourth Fuel Cell Competition Cat Lift Trucks sponsored the International Youth Fuel Cell Competition. Held in San Antonio, Texas, the competition featured students between the ages of 14 and 18 years from Germany, India, Japan and the United States. Seven teams were required to construct a fuel cell lift truck that could lift a load 2.4 inches and move the load 11.8 inches across a flat plastic surface. Each team's truck was judged on energy efficiency, engineering and creativity. “All of the students participating in this competition were exceptional,” says Wayne Mabry, Cat Lift Trucks manager of electrical engineering and a judge for the engineering portion of the competition. “Cat was honored to play a part in expanding their knowledge on green technology and the manufacturing industry.”

A Raymond Reach Truck refuels at an indoor hydrogen fueling station.
A Raymond Reach Truck refuels at an indoor hydrogen fueling station.

Raymond Releases Research Findings
The Raymond Corporation's fuel cell-powered lift truck research yielded some preliminary results:

  • The braking distance and maximum travel and lift speeds of the fuel cell truck are equivalent to that of a battery-powered truck.
  • Refueling the fuel cell truck at an indoor hydrogen refueling station takes only a couple of minutes, compared with up to 20 minutes to remove and replace a battery from the same truck model.
  • The battery acts as part of the counterweight in many of the current electric truck designs. Hydrogen fuel cell components weigh less than lead-acid batteries, so additional weight must be added to the fuel cell unit. This weight must be distributed within the fuel cell system so the center of gravity is the same as that of the battery it replaces. Future lift trucks may have the fuel cells wholly incorporated into the truck design to address such concerns.
 Read More OnlineFor more coverage on fuel cell forklifts, check out the Industrial Trucks heading under the Product Applications tab in the Topic Archive.

Raymond's research will continue to analyze hydrogen consumption and refueling frequency, operation of the hydrogen infrastructure and refueling, maintenance of fuel cells, voltage delivered and how it compares with the specification for all the electrical components and options on a forklift truck.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association