The U.S. Department of Energy is partnering with a California based company on a $2 million undertaking to test the market capabilities of methanol fuel cells. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will be working with Oorja Protonic for two-year project that will put methanol fuel cells into power pallet jacks to determine the benefits of the technology. NREL will provide $900,000 to the project, leaving Oorja $1.2 million in costs.
75 direct methanol fuel cell power packs will be sent to warehouses in California, Kansas City, and Chicago to see if the technology results in performance improvement and lowered energy needs for Class III material handling lifts. The fuel cells will not replace traditional forklift batteries, but rather sit on top the unit to provide a consistant stream of energy, eliminating the need for multiple charges that take power from the local electrical grid.
Methanol is a relatively stable liquid, however, its energy efficiency is low. In 1990 scientists at the University of Southern California invented a fuel cell that directly converted methanol to electricity. Being able to store a low amount of energy over a long period of time has limited the technology’s growth. But, the portability of methanol fuel cells make them well-suited for forklift and other warehouse equipment.
The methanol used in the project will be organically derived crude glycerin produced from vegetable oil and animal fat processing. Although most technology in fuel cells is centered around hydrogen, methanol fuel cells are competing in a different market since they are too inefficient for use in cars and other high performance devices. As well, methanol fuel cells can be considerably cheaper to manufacture than their hydrogen counterparts, making them more attractive to the distribution market looking to cut costs wherever possible. If, at the end of the NREAL testing, the technology can be proved effective, similar models will mostly likely start to compete for a stake in the forklift industry.