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Fuel Cell Technology

Fri September 04, 2009 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Fuel cells are the power plant of the future. Just wait and see.

That pretty well summarizes the state of fuel cell technology in the heavy construction industry. Though some research and development units still quietly explore the realm of hydrogen and oxygen engines, most seem to be waiting for a feasibility breakthrough.

“That doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Pat Valente of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition, acknowledging that fuel cell R&D for heavy machinery has ebbed. “We just can’t say when it will happen.”

Not so long ago, there was less reticence about declaring when. The day seemed near when hydrogen-oxygen engines would become genuine commercial alternatives to internal combustion engines on mobile platforms.

In July 2001, President Bush’s Secretary of Energy announced a $17 million grant to Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc. to fund development of “advanced transportation-based fuel cell systems.” The goal, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced, was to overcome “technical barriers” including high component costs, weight, start-up time and efficiency.

“By working together with partners from industry and the academic community, we can make the technological advances and scientific breakthroughs needed to fully realize the potential of these technologies,” Abraham said.

Eight years later, some of the technical barriers indeed have been overcome, but a remaining barrier — cost — looms large. High component costs keep the technology from fully realizing its potential. Application of fuel cell technology to machinery product lines now powered by diesel engines still is “not cost effective,” said Danielle Andre, a communication specialist of Nuvera of Billerica, Mass. “You have to show a fuel cell-powered piece of equipment is a good value proposition.”

A fuel cell relies on chemistry instead of combustion to produce electricity. The cell is fed hydrogen and oxygen, which are broken down into electrons and protons — creating electric current — before being united to create water vapor, carbon dioxide and heat. The great virtue of the process is that it creates fewer toxic emissions than combustion and does so quietly and with relatively little consumption of fuel.

One version of the cell utilizes pure hydrogen as a fuel. The other version — solid oxide fuel cell — utilizes a hydrogen-carbon monoxide mix and can be fueled by natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), diesel, gasoline and biofuels.

The pure hydrogen model is most often used in vehicles, creating a need for hydrogen refueling stations. That infrastructure is nonexistent — though a corridor of such stations is planned in California — rendering the vehicles impractical. That is not the case, however, when the vehicles are operated in a closed loop. An example of this is a metrobus system where the buses operate along a fixed route and are parked overnight at a central location.

Where fuel cell-powered vehicles return to a base, rather than operate in radiating paths away from a starting point, a hydrogen station can be established at a fixed location. A nearly perfect industrial application of fuel cell technology is the forklift. The vehicles already are electric powered, can be operated by relatively small power units and travel no farther from a refueling station than the other side of the warehouse or equipment yard.

Consequently, forklifts are a popular focus of fuel cell programs. Nuvera Fuel Cells has seen a surge of forklift applications in the last year or so. Forty-four of its systems were introduced to manufacturing and a government distribution sites in Pennsylvania and another distribution center in Texas. The Nuvera products were fuel cell and fuel cell-hybrid forklifts and hydrogen fueling stations.

These commercial applications of the technology have created at Nuvera a sense of this being “a real exciting time” for the company and for proponents of the cleaner power technology in general, said Andre. But cost effectiveness and durability of fuel cells remain more problematic in other types of commercial rolling stock.

Andre acknowledged that Nuvera is working with fuel cells in larger pieces of equipment, “but not publicly at this time.”

Her official reticence is echoed by Craig Olson, marketing communications manager of John Deere’s construction and forestry division. An inquiry about Deere’s engagement in fuel cell technology brought the response from Olson that “John Deere is exploring a variety of technologies to create more fuel efficient construction equipment. We are not prepared to publicly discuss exact technologies at this time.”

Whereas in 2002, the company proudly announced it would soon “join the cell fuel club” through a joint project with a Canadian fuel cell manufacturer, Hyrogenic Corporation. The project was to develop a fuel-cell-powered version of the Pro-Gator utility vehicle.

Two years later, Deere and Hydrogenics announced a five-year agreement to continue to explore application of the technology in a variety of mobile platforms, including forestry and mining vehicles. “Deere has proven to be exceptional in this effort,” the Hydrogenics CEO, Pierre Rivard, declared, “largely due to the company’s recognition of the potential for fuel cell technologies to enhance their current and future product platforms.”

The technology’s potential evidently is not quite so clear in 2009.

The recession caused Caterpillar to pull back from some fuel cell experimentation. The company announced in 2002 that it was allied with Fuel Cell Energy of Danbury, Conn., to develop a Caterpillar fuel cell power plant for industrial and commercial use. Fuel Cell dabbled in vehicular fuel cell applications during these years, but for some time has focused on large stationary power units.

Also, a Denver engineering firm, Vehicle Projects LLC, teamed with a handful of companies including Caterpillar to create a full cell-powered mine loader. The low-profile, 23-ton R1300 Cat loader was converted from diesel to a fuel cell unit as a test vehicle. However, Cat pulled out of the project last fall because of economic conditions that forced layoffs numbering in the thousands. Cat’s future participation in this and similar projects is hoped for by the Denver engineers.

In any event, Vehicle Projects has taken the project to another manufacturer, Irwin Car, and is in the first year of a two-year feasibility research program. One of the intriguing possibilities of the project is that methane gas in mines could become the fuel of choice for the cell-powered vehicle. Almost as tantalizing is the possibility that the process of the fuel cell powerplant could be reversed in an underground emergency allowing the unit to be fed water to produce oxygen for an oxygen-starved area of the mine.

A second Vehicle Projects undertaking is conversion of a locomotive from diesel to a fuel cell. Already six years in the making, the switchover of a switch engine to the new technology has been centered in the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway yards in Topeka, Kan.

The engine, which will be rated at 2,000 hp (1,490 kW), and locomotive have been moved to the Transportation Technology Center at Pueblo, Colo., for testing by the Federal Railroad Administration. The cell’s durability and overall speed and performance of the locomotive will be closely monitored.

If successfully tested, the locomotive then will be run out to Los Angeles, Calif., for operation as a shunting engine in the railroad yards there. This application of a fuel cell power plant is another example of a closed loop in which an engine’s workload and route are fixed, thereby making multiple fueling stations unnecessary.

Successful fuel cell conversion of the nation’s railroad engine stock could have large import, to say the least. Burlington Northern estimates 12 to 14 million gallons of diesel fuel are burned each day in its fleet of engines — an estimated 2 percent of all diesel usage in the country consumed in a day. The cost savings to the company are matched by a reduction in emissions as the giant machines rumble across the landscape of America.

Jack Hession, a marketing consultant of Vehicle Projects, observed that such experimental projects as these are “baby steps” in making fuel cells a major force in the spectrum of engines that power heavy equipment. Yet in the four years since the start of the locomotive project, the cost of a fuel stack — the component in which the hydrogen and oxygen are broken down — has fallen to $750,000 from a million dollars. That is a trend in the right direction.

The technology has been around for a long time — Hession noted that it was employed in some phases of NASA’s trips to the moon 40 years ago — and he believes commitment to continued development can produce the cost equivalency so necessary for success in the marketplace.

The Volvo Group is not a stranger to technological discovery. The Swedish company has announced that it will be part of a consortium of companies investing millions in the further development of fuel cells. A firm called Powercell Sweden will be housed in a new plant in Gothenburg, Sweden. Eventually 100 employees will experiment with fuel cells using a patented fuel converter device.

“I am immensely proud that we are building this company on a technology that has been developed by Volvo for 15 years,” said Powercell CEO Per Ekdunge in an August news release.

Cummins has been exploring the prospect of fuel cell powered heavy equipment for 40 years, but got serious in 2001 through involvement with the U.S. Department of Energy. Its paramount interest at present is the solid oxide fuel cell because it piggybacks on existing fueling infrastructure. Stationary power units and trucking applications are the tentative focus.

Wider heavy equipment application is spurred by the hope that fuel cell tandem units could take over when diesel engines are idling — which is a surprisingly large chunk of time in the course of a day — thereby reducing fuel consumption and improving emissions.

And what does Cummins see as the future of fuel cells? The company seems to share the reluctance of other heavy equipment and engine manufacturers to over-promise the impact of fuel cells on American productivity.

Research program directors declare rather obliquely on the company’s Web site that Cummins “maintains an active dialog and collaboration with the Department of Energy, focused on opportunities for the cooperative development of new power generation technology that will benefit the United States…”

Just wait and see.

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