Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
April 9th, 2009

Hydrogen, the Fuel of the Future, Starts to Show up in the Present

Hydrogen has long been looked at as the ‘fuel of the future’.  The general impression is that it will be a marketplace fuel in the future but not for a decade or more.  Well, surprise, hydrogen is coming into the fuel marketplace today, albeit slowly.

Last week I attended the National Hydrogen Association annual convention in Columbia South Carolina.  In addition to delivering a short keynote address and moderating a panel, I was there to learn as much as I could about this future fuel.   I was fortunate to spend discussion time with, and listen to presentations by, some of the best and brightest from academia, corporations and governmental agencies on the subject of hydrogen.

There is no question that hydrogen is becoming and will be an integral part of our energy equation.  Right now the problem confronting this source of energy is one of scale.  Scale of production, scale of the infrastructure for distribution and scale of production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.    It is the fuel cell car that has the highest profile in this new energy area and is also the product that consumers are most interested in, particularly due to the recent history of oil prices and the state of the automotive industry.  There were several hydrogen fuel cell cars and even a bus that were available for rides at the convention, and I will write about the wonderful experience of driving three of the cars in my next column.

What I found interesting was how much hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells are actually being used in the marketplace.  Forklift vehicles are being used by companies at their large distribution centers replacing electric battery forklifts. Companies like WalMart and Sysco are using them as the hydrogen forklifts both increase productivity and lower costs.   When such large companies, who hold efficiency and lowering costs in high regard are moving toward the use of hydrogen fuel cell forklifts it is something to note.

These hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are superior to their electric counterparts in several ways.  Unlike batteries, which decline in power through a work shift, the fuel cells are like an internal combustion engine (ICE) in that they run until empty.  This means maximum output until refueling is needed.  The refueling takes minutes rather than the hours needed to recharge batteries. In addition there is no problem with any toxic waste spillage that can sometimes be present with batteries.  Finally, as the fuel cell is producing power, the only waste or byproducts are water and some generated heat.  They are very clean. The Linde Group, clearly a leader in this industry, has been working in partnership with companies on forklifts to develop best practices in distribution centers for the past four years.  It sounds like the early discovery work is behind them and that a rapid ramp up of the customer base is at hand.

In addition to forklifts, there is a growing business in portable power units,  hydrogen production equipment and more fun, hydrogen fuel cell Segways that are in use by the Columbia S.C. police department.  The line to take a ride on these vehicles was always long.

The convention was held in Columbia S.C. in part because the city and the state are trying to take a lead in the development and use of hydrogen fuel cell technology.  What was stunning to me was that on public day, when the public could visit the convention floor and seminars for free, the convention center was overrun by people, some of whom had driven long distances, to learn more about they all clearly see as something in their future.  The excitement of the crowds about this future/present fuel was palpable and there was a clear feeling on the convention floor that we were all looking at the future.

When we reach that future on a large scale is the only question, one I will address in the next column.

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