The flurry of corporate interest in hydrogen fuel cells continued this week with telecommunications giant Sprint announcing that it will use the emerging technology as a means of backing up power for rooftop network sites.
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Hydrogen fuel cells work by converting hydrogen gas and oxygen pulled from the air into electricity to power an electric motor. The technology has had a rocky history in the United States: while many of the big automakers have dabbled over the past 40 decades – and President George W. Bush set aside $1.2 for hydrogen research during his administration – the more recent focus has been largely on advancing batteries for electric vehicles.
This latest investment is supported with financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE). Although the amount funding for this particular project isn’t yet undisclosed (it will be within 60 days), in 2009 Sprint got a $7.3 million DoE grant to start introducing fuel cells into its network for back-up uses on its ground-based networks.
“To date, we’ve deployed approximately 500 hydrogen fuel cells in our network,” said Bob Azzi, chief network officer at Sprint, in a statement about the new plan. “This technology will provide backup power for our network and could extend to other industries as well.”
The rooftop sites in question make up probably 30 percent of Sprint’s coverage area in some major metropolitan areas. One of the reasons hydrogen fuel cells are interesting to the teleco is that they are modular and relatively lightweight, which makes them simpler to install. What’s more, they can be refueled from the ground, which means that fuel doesn’t have to be hauled up to the roof, as would be the case with a diesel generator.
The first locations could be in place by the end of 2014.
FedEx Express is also the beneficiary of a DoE award for development of hydrogen fuel cells. The $3 million project is actually a collaboration between FedEx Express, Smith Electric Vehicles and Plug Power, which is one of the better-known players in this market segment.
The focus is on creating hydrogen fuel cell extenders for 20 electric delivery trucks that are part of the FedEx fleet. Right now, the trucks have a range of only about 80 miles per charge. The converted vehicles will run on lithium-ion batteries combined with a 10-kilowatt Plug Power hydrogen fuel cell system, specifically the GenDrive Series 1000. (An image of the GenDrive appears below.)
The intent of the project is to prove out whether these converted vehicles are really more efficient than diesel-powered trucks: it is anticipated that the “fuel” needed to power this fleet will cost 35 percent to 40 percent less than for diesel trucks.
Plug Power has installed more than 4,000 GenDrive units, mainly for materials handling applications, where it says it has roughly a 90 percent marketshare. Some of its biggest customers include Walmart, Sysco, Procter & Gamble, and Mercedes.
In mid-January, the company announced a turnkey system for its technology called GenKey; it includes the GenDrive fuel cells, GenFuel hydrogen fuel and infrastructure, and GenCare maintenance service. The intent is to make it simpler for businesses to adopt the technology. In fact, it designed its products as a “drop-in replacement” for traditional lead-acid batteries.
“GenKey allows us to increase our value-add for customers through building a comprehensive turnkey solution that streamlines the transition to a hydrogen infrastructure – we do all the hard work, so the customer can focus on the best use of it’s newfound productivity,” said Andy Marsh, CEO of Plug Power, in a statement.
That’s important, because one of the big market inhibitors for hydrogen fuel cells has been, obviously, the lack of fuel stations. As of 2012, there were only about 200 of them in the United States, estimates the DoE, although an initiative announced in May 2013 aims to remedy that. California, as an example, has announced it will invest up to $200 million to reach 100 stations across the state by 2024.
Plus fuel cells are pretty scalable: technologies being tested by several automakers could provide up to 300 miles per tank, which negates the range anxiety concerns that have plagued electric vehicle adoption. From a consumer standpoint, Hyundai is planning to sell a Tucson SUV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell starting this year. Toyota also has announced plans to pioneer this market, showing off prototypes of its FCV at two high profile shows this month.
Aside from Plug Power, another player to watch is Nuvera Fuel Cells, which like Plug Power, is testing applications that use hydrogen fuel cells to power refrigeration units in delivery trucks. It received a $650,000 grant in August 2013 (which will be matched with private funds), to help with a test involving Thermo King. The initiative uses Nuvera’s Orion fuel cell stack technology, which range from 10 kilowatts to 20 kilowatts. The trucks are powered by diesel engineers: the refrigeration units will use the cells.
Nuvera is also involved with a trial to outfit marine vessels with larger versions of its technology: it has been commissioned by Italian shipmaker Fincantieri to deliver eight Orion units for use as range extenders; delivery is scheduled by mid-2014.
Other companies that are testing hydrogen fuel cell technologies include Ballard Power Systems, Hydrogenics and Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide.