Fuel cells and trucking

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Fuel cell vehicles have been an elusive goal for the automotive industry “but they are on the verge of commercial reality. With substantial support from the largest automakers, the pressure is on gas companies and governments to make sure that hydrogen fueling stations are available to support this emerging market.” –Dave Hurst, transportation industry analyst, Pike Research

As I’ve noted before in this space, fuel cell technology is getting a lot more attention these days in the commercial trucking arena – both as a primary source of propulsion as well as for auxiliary power in order to reduce excessive engine idling.

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Indeed, the Port of Los Angeles and strong>Vision Industries are right now testing fuel cell powered drayage trucks to see if the technology can reduce emissions and costs while preserving vehicle performance requirements.

Though I’ve still got big doubts about whether fuel cell-powered vehicles can truly be affordable – much less practical – in the motor vehicle world, others say the indicators are all rapidly turning green for this form of alternative power.

According to a new report from Pike Research, fuel cell vehicles will be commercially launched in most regions of the world by 2014, and cumulative sales of fuel cell cars and trucks will surpass 2.8 million vehicles globally by 2020.

“For a decade or more, fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) have been touted as the ‘next big thing’ in automobiles, featuring the promise of zero emissions, other than water and heat,” said David Hurst, Pike’s transportation industry analyst. “Now, with fleets of FCVs in the hundreds and the increasing utilization of fuel cells in commercial vehicles, it appears that light duty FCVs will be commercialized by mid-decade.”

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Hurst added that five key automakers are early leaders in FCV programs: Daimler AG, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota.

Pike also believes that Western Europe will be the leading region for FCV sales with a 37% share of the world market, followed closely by Asia Pacific with 36%. FCV sales in North America will represent approximately 25% of global sales during the period from 2014 to 2020. In total, Pike predicts that FCV revenues will reach $23.9 billion annually by 2020.

Fuel cell technology is also being touted as an anti-idling solution for truckers, as well. While this isn’t a new concept, Oorja Protonics recently introduced a new fuel cell platform that uses methanol, not hydrogen, to generate electricity to power forklifts or auxiliary power untis (APUs) on trucks.

The OorjaPac Model 1 direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) produces 4.5 kilowatts (kW) of power, and with an operating cost of just 18 cents per kW-hour, Sanjiv Malhotra – the company’s founder, president & CEO – believes it will be an economical solution for forklift operators and fleet managers.

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“The biggest hurdle with fuel cells has also been that word ‘hydrogen,’” Malhotra told me recently. Is it ever, for many wags in the industry note that negative feelings around hydrogen stem from what’s known as the “Hindenburg effect” – a reference to the horrific destruction of the German airship Hindenburg in 1937 when the lighter-than-air hydrogen gas used to keep it aloft suddenly ignited during a landing attempt in New Jersey.

“So the challenge we think is to find a way to power fuel cells without hydrogen, yet maintain their clean-air benefits,” Malhotra noted. “Methanol is a widely available and easy to handle energy source. Produced from natural gas, land fill gases or bio-waste, the process of fueling the OorjaPac is as simple as refueling a car.”

Hydrogen must also be stored at high pressure to used in fuel cells; not so with liquid methanol, he said. And, as a liquid, it can be more easily distributed to filling stations and truckstops. “And it’s really no more dangerous than windshield wiper fluid,” Malhotra added.

He said the OorjaPac’s 11 gallon methanol fuel tank is sufficient to power two eight-hour shifts in a forklift, with a similar scope of operation for a truck’s APU. “A single refuel of the new Model 1 takes less than one minute, and can last two eight-hour shifts,” Malhotra noted. “We’ve seen payback in as little as six months, with companies seeing full payback in 12-15 months.”

That’s a big deal in the Class 8 world, where truck engine idling consumes three billion gallons of fuel per year and costs the industry some $9 billion annually – that’s the cost of fuel plus 15 to 20 cents per engine hour to cover the cost of maintenance, Malhotra stressed.

Is liquid methanol cheap? Compared to diesel fuel it is – at least for the moment – running about $1 to $1.50 per gallon. Might that change if demand were to rise? I’d say absolutely. But then diesel fuel isn’t getting any cheaper these days, either.

So, will fuel cells really take off as a both primary and auxiliary power sources for truckers? That’s still an open question. One thing’s for sure – the technology seems to be coming down in price and complexity. That might be the winning combination when all is said and done.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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