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Ballard Power Systems has been one of the leading developers and manufacturers of fuel cells in recent years and has worked with numerous automakers including Ford and Chrysler. They also supply fuel cell technology to many other companies, and today announced a deal to provide 2,900 fuel cells to General Hydrogen. General Hydrogen will be installing the cells into conversion kits that they sell to companies that operate material handling equipment like fork-lifts. The conversions are for fork-lifts that currently run on lead-acid batteries. Fuel cells have many performance advantages over the batteries including three times the run-time and constant power throughout use. The fuel cells are viable in this type of usage scenario right now because the the hydrogen filling infrastructure can be on-site in the factory or warehouse, so there is no worry about refueling. The agreement is worth $22 million to Ballard and calls for one quarter of the fuel cells to be delivered in 2007 with the remainder in 2008. The cells will range in output from 4 to 20 kW

[Source: Ballard Power Systems via The Auto Channel]



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      In the case where small utility vehicles are used intermittently indoors, absolutely must have zero toxic emissions, and don't need very much range, hydrogen might actually make some sense. Even the safety issue can be manageable in an industrial setting.

      However, a straight EV would still be substantially more economical, even factoring in the cost of batteries. With expected improvements in battery and supercap technology, that economic gap will widen. Charge time and battery depletion issues could easily be addressed by having modular packs that can be quickly and frequently changed. With minimal range requirments, supercaps could be used to either replace or supplement batteries, further lowering long-term cost.

      If cost is an issue, then any company using hydrogen vehicles in any capacity will find itself at a competitive disadvantage. Not only is the fuel itself more expensive (hydrogen is a ridiculously inefficient energy storage medium), but using hydrogen will involve large capital expenditures for facilities to generate, store, and safely manage its use.

      While use of hydrogen to power commuter vehicles remains insanely stupid, use in an industrial setting is merely dumb, and will be inherently self-limiting.