General Motors of Canada and Hydrogenics Corp., Ontario, Canada, are dipping their collective toes into the hydrogen economy, testing the viability of hydrogen-powered industrial vehicles. GM is using a pair of fuel-cell powered forklifts that rely on hydrogen for fuel at its Oshawa Car Assembly Plant. The Hyster Co., Greenville, N.C., is providing the forklifts. But they've been retrofit with fuel cells by Hydrogenics. GM has also installed a Hydrogenic Hylyzer, an electrolysis-based hydrogen refueling station at the plant, an industry first. If the trial proves profitable, fuel cells and hydrogen power could become much more common at warehouses, factories, and other industrial facilities.

It was relatively easy to change the 5,500-lb forklifts over to fuel cells because they already used electricity. The Hydrogenic HyPm fuel cell supplies 14 kW, and it is smaller and lighter than the lead-acid batteries it replaces. But the batteries doubled as a counterbalance. So the fuel-cell powered vehicle needed extra weight to maintain proper balance. Designers also had to add a hydrogen storage tank, complete with overpressure and overtemperature relief valves, and an excess-flow shut-off valve. The tanks are large enough to hold an 8-hr shift's worth of hydrogen. The forklifts also needed a small tank to hold water, a by-product of fuel-cell operation. Water gets drained when the forklifts refuel.

It takes about 2 min to refuel a forklift. GM's onsite Hylyzer generates 65 kg of hydrogen per day using electrolysis. The gas is compressed and stored at 5,000 psi in tanks just outside the plant. Cost of the hydrogen depends on the cost of electricity.

Like battery-powered lifts, hydrogen-fueled versions are quiet and emission free, a big advantage for tooling around indoors. But batteries are drained enough over 8 hr to lower the output voltage and make the lift sluggish. Fuel cells, on the other hand, consistently put out the same output voltage. This should boost the life of vehicle electrical components and reduce maintenance.

GM figures fuel cells are also a more efficient use of floor space than batteries. A single hydrogen refueling station can service 25 forklifts for three shifts daily. It takes up less square footage than the rechargers and batteries needed to supply the three to four batteries daily that conventional lifts need.

The project could also lead to more ergonomic and efficient forklifts. Manufacturers won't have to design around a large battery box or mechanical drive, relying instead on fuel cells and distributed electric-drive components.

GM of Canada and Hydrogenics are working with Nacco Materials Handling Group, John Deere, and Federal Express. They are being funded by the Canadian Transportation Fuel Cell Alliance and the Sustainable Development Technology Canada.