Amazon and Walmart have both turned to using forklifts that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The two retail giants are employing technology developed by Plug Power Inc. Amazon first tried out the technology earlier in the year at some of its warehouses.
Earlier in the month Walmart also jumped on the bandwagon by deploying forklifts using hydrogen fuel cells at more than 50 of its warehouses. Andy Marsh, the chief executive officer of Plug Power said the fact that two retail behemoths were using his firm’s hydrogen fuel cells was a vote of confidence in the company’s technology.
“Obviously, Wal-Mart sees it. Obviously, Amazon sees it. When you have the two largest retailers saying, ‘This makes our business run better,’ that’s validation that this is here for the long run,” said Marsh.
Though the concept of hydrogen as a fuel has been around since 1808 when Francois Isaac de Rivaz, a Swiss inventor, came up with an automobile that was powered by hydrogen, the relatively high costs have hindered its growth. However in the booming ecommerce sector, hydrogen-powered forklifts make economic sense in the long run.
Currently a forklift bearing hydrogen fuel cells can end up costing close to $58,000 which is double what a forklift fitted with a lead acid battery costs. But in a decade, the hydrogen-fueled forklift turns out to be cheaper by 10%. This is according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study conducted three years. Since then the cost advantage of hydrogen-powered fork lifts has improved.
One of the advantages of hydrogen-powered forklifts is that it takes only minutes to charge their batteries as opposed to hours. This frees up warehouse space besides ensuring that operations do not cease.
Some of the companies developing forklifts running on hydrogen fuel cells include Toyota which is current the biggest maker of standard forklifts in the world. Three years ago another major manufacturer of forklifts, Hyster-Yale Materials Handling, acquired a maker of hydrogen fuel cells and the technology is already being incorporated into its products.
Hydrogen fuel cell firms such as Hydrogenics Corp and Ballard Power Systems Inc are not restricting their technology to forklifts but are introducing it to drone aircraft, delivery trucks and buses. And prior to focusing on forklifts, Plug Power, which was started two decades ago, had explored the idea of using hydrogen fuel cells in the generation of power to power cellphone towers and homes.