The launch of the UK’s first commercial-scale hydrogen production and refuelling facility powered by solar energy heralds the dawn of an era of true carbon-free fuel.
The gas will be generated at Honda UK's manufacturing plant in Swindon at the rate of 20 tonnes per year using a process called solar hydrolysis, whereby Hydrogen will be produced from water using the heat of the sun, and used initially to power a pair of forklifts, a fleet of commercial vehicles, and an education centre situated alongside the filling station.
With the generating and dispensing infrastructure now in place to ensure commercial-scale volumes of liquid Hydrogen on tap, one of the partners in the venture, Briggs Equipment UK, has developed the technology to run a pair of Hydrogen fuel cell-powered 2.5t Yale 80v trucks at the automotive manufacturer's site.
The forklifts are Lithium-Ion/Hydrogen hybrids, whereby a Hydrogen-powered IC engine sits alongside the electric motor. The trucks operate similar in manner to regular LPG-powered trucks, with no discernible difference in performance. Using tried-and-tested technology similar to the 'KERS' energy-capturing devices that are a feature of modern Formula One race cars, kinetic energy from braking and the lowering of the mast is stored in the Li-Ion battery and deployed to reduce Hydrogen use.
Hydrogen is pumped in 300m-lomg subterranean pipes from the generating station in the grounds of the plant to the forklift fuelling point inside the manufacturing facility, and the trucks are refuelled in a process taking around five minutes, offering up to 5.5 hours of running time per fill.
Unlike other volatile fuels, a leak or a spillage of Hydrogen is not going to damage the environment, as it will combine with the air to become inert. Furthermore, waste from the forklift is pure, deionised water, which can be simply poured away into a drain, or harvested to be used for topping up conventional Lead-acid batteries that power the rest of the fleet elsewhere on site. This could mean that the domination by electric forklifts in clean warehouse environments could be about to be challenged.
Trevor Clifton, Briggs' technical manager who project-managed the installation from Briggs' perspective, said: "Hydrogen has a number of advantages; for example, there is no drop-off in performance, even when the tank is running low. There is no difference from a driver's point of view - it feels like driving a forklift with a fully-charged lead-acid battery."
Honda and Briggs have partnered with other organisations to get the project off the ground, namely gas manufacturer BOC, Commercial Group, Swindon Borough Council, Fuel Cell System and Revolve. Nick Rolf, BOC’s innovation manager – Hydrogen systems, said: “No other facility in the UK has the capacity to refuel vehicles with ‘green’ high-purity hydrogen on a commercial scale, and this now cements Swindon’s position as the key location for fuel cell vehicle introduction.”
Clifton added that the cost of the research and engineering Briggs has invested in the project means the early trucks are expensive - over £100,000 per vehicle - but now that the pilot is up and running, subsequent trucks will cost in the region of £38,000. However, the UK’s rental-heavy culture is likely to mask any hefty outright purchase issues.
He said whilst it is not commercially realistic to convert just a handful of trucks to Hydrogen-power, as the cost of the conversion and supporting infrastructure will outweigh any savings, businesses running 100+ trucks should look seriously at Hydrogen: "When you're running 100+ trucks, the manpower, battery changing technology, and space savings - as well as the fact that you won't need to invest in three lead-acid batteries per truck - makes economic sense."
Furthermore, Clifton added that the current Hydrogen-powered trucks being used at Honda are "a compromise solution", as the technology has been developed to sit inside the framework of an existing standard fork lift truck chassis. He estimated that a tipping point will be reached when demand for Hydrogen-powered FLTs reaches 8% of total production.
At that point, said Clifton, it would be more commercially prudent "to develop a truck around the technology, rather than putting new technology into a truck that is engineered for lead-acid batteries. At a point in the future, we will re-engineer the truck to optimise it around the fuel cell."