Although Nissan has been working on fuel cell-powered road vehicles, mostly in Japan, they haven't garnered nearly the attention that Honda, GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford have. There have been plenty of arguments for and against fuel cells here and elsewhere. However, closed vertical applications like factories are probably the best short term application for fuel cell technology because of the localized fueling infrastructure.

Nissan has conducted some small trials of fuel cell forklifts over the past couple of years and is currently running a five-month test at their Smyrna, TN assembly facility with nine trucks. Fork lifts typically use interchangeable lead acid battery packs that are swapped out for freshly charged units when they run down. Nissan is using a fuel cell pack that fits the same package size as the batteries.

The fuel cell systems have several advantages over the batteries. Nissan is currently using 13,000 sq ft of plant floor space for charging racks for over 1,000 battery packs. The fuel cell pack can run 18 hours before needing refueling while the batteries run four to six hours. The fuel cell also provides constant power output at all times while the batteries have lower output as they run down. For more on Nissan's fuel cell forklift program check out their press release after the jump.

[Source: Nissan]

- Zero-emission lifts complement Nissan's environmental drive -

(SMYRNA, Tenn.) - At Nissan's massive vehicle assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., the gauge on Dennis Sisco's forklift lets him know when his equipment is ready for a power boost. So he drives his forklift outside the plant, pulls up to the filling station and fills the tank... with hydrogen.

Nissan is currently conducting a trial of forklifts powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Using fuel cells in the industrial equipment market is a fairly new technology developed within the past two years, and Nissan is exploring the benefits they could provide in its material handling fleet. Limited, one- and two-unit trials have been conducted for three- and four-week periods over the past two years, with positive results from each trial. The Smyrna Plant is now employing nine fuel cell forklifts in a five-month trial, and a temporary fueling station has been set just outside its main delivery dock.

"At Nissan, we're constantly looking for ways to reduce the environmental impact of our business activities," says John Martin, vice president, Supply Chain Management. "Using hydrogen fuel cells to power zero-emission forklifts may turn out to be a good alternative to the lead-acid batteries we're currently using."

From appearance alone, it is difficult to tell the new fuel cell forklifts from a traditional, battery-powered forklift. The fuel cell power pack is a direct plug-and-play, fitting within the forklift's existing battery compartment. The pack is the same size and weight as a lead-acid battery, about 3,400 pounds. Only a gauge has been added to the forklift to show when more hydrogen should be added to the pack.

How does the hydrogen fuel cell work?

"Hydrogen supplied from the hydrogen tank is fed into the fuel cell, where it generates electricity, which is used on demand by the forklift," says Keith Phillips, engineer, Lean Manufacturing. "Generated electricity is supplied to the motor to spin the front wheels. The only byproducts are heat and water. Some of the water is reused within the system, and the rest evaporates. There's no carbon dioxide and no carbon monoxide. Hydrogen is a clean fuel."

The fuel cell power system used in the Smyrna forklifts is supplied by a Canadian-based company that specializes in fuel cell power systems and fueling stations for industrial vehicles and other off-road equipment. Although the hydrogen fuel cell pack is user-friendly, Nissan engineers are working with the vendor to recommend changes to improve performance.

Nissan began this trial in May, and the trial is scheduled to end toward the end of September. This real-world trial is closely supported by Nissan's Industrial Machinery Division and the Nissan Research Center, which are based on Japan.

Nissan started full-scale development of FCV technology in 2001. Research and development efforts on a variety of technologies – from fuel cells and hybrid vehicles to electric and compressed natural gas vehicles - are ongoing. Nissan's Industrial Machinery Division is studying fuel cell technology for any potential applications to forklifts.

Hydrogen fuel cell benefits
The fuel cell forklifts offer many benefits over the traditional lead-acid batteries commonly used in forklifts:
  • Environmental benefit: Hydrogen fuel cell packs do not emit pollutants. Because the technology is environmentally friendly, the U.S. government is offering a 30% energy tax credit on the cost of fuel cells in 2006 and 2007. Charging forklift batteries currently consumes 3.2 million kilowatts of electricity per year. Switching to hydrogen fuel cells would eliminate 2,098 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing CO2 emissions is one of the key issues addressed by the Nissan Green Program, the environmental plan for Nissan's global operations.
  • No recharging of lead-acid batteries: Nissan currently stores over 1,000 batteries in charging racks to supply its fleet of 340 forklifts/tugs. The racks take up much-needed floor space – 13,000 square feet in Smyrna's three charging areas - that could be used for other purposes.
  • No disposal of lead-acid batteries, which is also better for the environment.
  • Longer life: A hydrogen fuel cell pack can last 10 to 12 years versus up to five years for a lead-acid battery. Maintenance costs are also expected to be lower for the fuel cell packs.
  • Faster refueling: The hydrogen fueling station is easy to operate. Filling the fuel cell pack takes only two to five minutes. Changing a battery takes seven minutes, and recharging and cooling it takes approximately 16 hours.
  • Extended run-time between fills: A completely filled hydrogen fuel cell forklift can run for about 18 hours while the plant is in full production. A battery-powered forklift runs for approximately four to six hours before the battery must be recharged.
  • Consistent and better power: As a lead-acid battery loses power, the forklift will slow down. There is no slowdown with the hydrogen fuel cell. The forklift operates at 100% power all the time, and drivers can refill the unit whenever they want.
During the trial, Nissan forklift operators make thorough notes in the log notebook that is attached to each unit. They measure fuel fills, the time between fill-ups, any maintenance issues and other notes related to performance. With this new hydrogen technology, the data collected during the trial will be analyzed both by the vendor and by Nissan.

Fuel cell forklifts may be a new entity in the 24-year-old Smyrna Plant, but the employees who drive them give them high marks.

"We love them," says Dennis Sisco. "The performance is great, and you don't have to worry about recharging once or twice a shift. These units are simple to operate, easy to refill, and, best of all, they're good for the environment."

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