At Summit ToyotaLift, we’re continuing to find ways to reduce our environmental impact, and we know our customers are as well. As material handling professionals, the idea is always to be more efficient. If we can be energy efficient, we can reduce costs while being kinder to the planet. It’s a no-brainer. There are emerging technologies that signify the next step in energy efficiency and lowering emissions in industrial equipment. Manufacturers are now researching—and some are producing—fuel cell powered forklifts. Fuel cell technology addresses environmental concerns, and owning such a fleet would lead to better allocation of a company’s time and space. As with many new technologies, the initial investment in these machines and the associated infrastructure is quite high. Naturally, these cost restrictions limit demand, so most manufacturers haven’t started producing fuel cell forklifts.
Some people have doubts about whether fuel cell technology will ever be viable, but if it does pan out, it would change a good deal about how we approach materials handling. To begin with, fuel cells are powered by hydrogen. This would replace the propane, diesel or—more likely—battery concerns that come along with any forklift. Instead, companies would have to store compressed hydrogen to refill their trucks. For comparison’s sake, if fuel cell trucks replaced a battery powered fleet, it’s safe to say that company would save some major time and space. Here’s how: In general, forklift batteries have to be swapped out for the truck to continue running. The dead battery gets charged and must cool, and the cycle continues. There are various types of chargers, and applications vary, but standard batteries run for eight hours, charge for eight hours, and cool for eight hours. Compare that with the three minutes it would take to replenish a vehicle’s hydrogen. Companies wouldn’t need battery chargers or spare batteries. They could use that space for other needs.
Beyond their convenience versus batteries, fuel cells offer a few more potential advantages. As opposed to batteries, their output remains consistent regardless of how long the truck has been in use, just like an internal combustion (IC) truck. The longer a battery is in use, the weaker its output. In the same vein, fuel cells would theoretically enjoy a longer overall lifespan than today’s batteries. They also have fewer toxic materials, so disposal is less of an issue. Replacing a liquid propane gas (LPG) powered fleet with fuel cell trucks would allow a business to no longer fret over the changing prices of gas. While fuel cell forklifts would run more like IC trucks, they only have one emission: water. Remember, while electric trucks may have no emissions, our electric grid does.
As with the handful of sacrifices associated with any kind of power source, fuel cell technology has several of its own. Hydrogen is volatile, and safety is everyone’s first concern. The cells are lighter than batteries, which means they couldn’t act as a counterweight the way batteries do. More than anything, it would cost a lot, so it’s only a consideration for large corporations. That’s because savings multiply with every forklift, and the larger the operation, the quicker the investment pays off. For now, fuel cells are more conversation than practice, and manufacturers are still improving their electric and IC technologies. It could be a long time, before hydrogen fuel cells become mainstream in materials handling, if at all. It’s something to be aware of as an industry, where environmental concerns and expenditure often go hand in hand.