Fuel Cell Reefers Not Madness At All

Diesel can be a dirty and noisy way to keep produce and other perishables cold and fresh when going from the warehouse to the store. But an initiative out of a U.S. government lab is offering hope that “reefers,” as refrigerator tractor trailers are known, can do better.

Fuel cell-powered refrigeration units – that’s the technology the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is promoting in partnership with a couple of East Coast-based companies.

fuel cell reefer

The fuel cell stack that will be used in a truck refrigerator unit. (image via Nuvera)

To make it happen, Massachusetts-based Nuvera and Albany, N.Y.-based Plug Power will each get $650,000 from Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – which the companies will match, while also providing labor – for a two-year program that will put four fuel cell-equipped trucks in service in Texas, California and New York. Four trucks: That’s a small bite out of the 300,000 trucks out there now using auxiliary systems for refrigeration, but it’s a start.

“This is a great application for a fuel cell,” Kriston Brooks, the PNNL researcher leading the project, said in a statement. “A trailer refrigeration unit traditionally is powered by a small diesel engine or electric motor that drives compressors to provide cooling to the cargo. A fuel cell can potentially provide a clean, quiet and efficient alternative by powering the electric motor.”

Fuel cells aren’t a renewable source of energy, but their ability to produce electricity through an electrochemical process – instead of combustion – can make them flexible, relatively clean and efficient energy producers.

One stumbling block to their dissemination in the transportation sector is a lack of hydrogen infrastructure, but with reefers that might not be as much of a challenge: PNNL notes that a lot of industrial and warehouse operations use hydrogen fuel cell forklifts, so they’ve got infrastructure already installed. That’s the case at distribution centers for Sysco in Riverside, Calif., and H-E-B in San Antonio that will be part of this program – those facilities generate hydrogen onsite from natural gas and water using a Nuvera system called PowerTap.

The other issue that can pop up with fuel cells is that they are pricey (although diesel isn’t necessarily inexpensive, either).

“In spite of their higher costs now, the higher efficiency and zero emissions from fuel cells are enough to convince many companies not to wait to implement this technology,” Brooks said. “Fuel cell products are already used widely in warehouses, and this project broadens their reach.”

The lab said that each fuel cell-powered refrigerated trailer will operate for at least 400 hours at each demonstration site, delivering goods from the distribution centers to stores or other outlets.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.