Amazon and Walmart have caught the hydrogen-powered electric forklift bug, and now they are moving on up to fuel cell trucks.

The Road To Fuel Cell Trucks Leads Through Forklifts

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The ever-newsworthy US firm Amazon set off a flurry of activity on the Intertubes Wednesday morning, when it announced yet another addition to its growing roster of zero emission fuel cell electric forklifts. Forklifts aren’t particularly headline-grabbing, but they could be, if they help spur a buildout of the hydrogen fuel station network. Among the beneficiaries would be heavy duty fuel cell trucks, and a green hydrogen twist is already surfacing.

Warehouse Operators Already Love Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trucks

To the extent that forklifts are a sort of a truck, hydrogen fuel cell trucks have already caught on among stakeholders in the shipping and logistics industry.

Back in 2010, CleanTechnica took note of a $93 million Energy Department program aimed at studying the performance of fuel cell vehicles for warehouse deployment.

The study was partly funded by Sysco and other warehouse-dependent companies, and partly funded by the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

At the time, lead-acid batteries were the preferred means of providing zero emission power for operating forklifts and other MHE (material handling equipment) indoors. Hydrogen fuel cells appeared to offer a more efficient alternative.

“Warehouses have already begun shifting to hydrogen fuel cell forklifts, partly because they perform better than electric-powered lifts, in which batteries have to be changed more frequently.  A high rate of efficiency is essential to warehouse management, so every minute of down time counts,” CleanTechnica explained.

“Because warehouses operate under strict productivity measures, the data platform is already in place for a rigorous study,” we noted.

By 2015 the Energy Department was solidly behind the business case for fuel cell power in a variety of use cases including zero emission on-site power generation as well as warehouse vehicles.

“The logistics of battery lift truck operation present several challenges, especially for high freight volume throughput with multiple daily shifts,” the Energy Department also noted in a 2016 explainer comparing batteries with fuel cells for warehouse operations.

“Battery issues include special electrical infrastructure and maintenance requirements, including the time needed for frequent battery changes (approximately 15-20 min/shift in many facilities) and battery cool down,” they continued. “Also, battery-powered MHE [material handling equipment] requires infrastructure for extra batteries, battery storage, charging equipment, battery changing areas, and battery maintenance (wash stations, showers, watering equipment, etc.),” they continued.

Amazon was among those taking the forklift study to heart. By 2022 the company had more than 15,000 fuel cell forklifts to its credit. Last year the company also announced plans to add another 5,000 fuel cell forklifts by 2025.

More Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Trucks

Amazon has also taken steps to clean up its hydrogen supply chain. Natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen fuel today, but early fuel cell adopters like Amazon are investing in green hydrogen solutions, which deploy electricity from renewable resources to power electrolysis systems that push hydrogen from water with the help of a catalyst.

In an interesting twist, green hydrogen advocates find themselves in a position similar to that of battery-electric vehicle fans. Both rely to some extent on electricity provided from the grid, which can depend partly or fully on fossil energy power plants depending on the location.

That brings us to the latest news from Amazon. On Wednesday, the company announced that the firm Plug Power has completed work on a new 1-megawatt electrolyzer at the Amazon DEN8 fullfillment center in Aurora, Colorado. The new electrolyzer can produce enough hydrogen from water to supply more than 225 fuel cell forklifts.

Some of the new electrolyzer projects to cross the CleanTechnica radar are powered directly by on-site renewable energy, but that’s not the case at DEN8 — yet. CleanTechnica reached out to Amazon for more details on the source of power for the new electrolyzer, and they let us know that they are considering some options for on-site renewables.

In the meantime, Amazon let CleanTechnica know they are using electricity provided by utilities in Aurora. That likely means it comes under the umbrella of the leading multistate energy company Xcel Energy. Xcel still depends partly on coal and natural gas to keep the lights on in Colorado, but it has also spotted green hydrogen opportunities leveraging electricity from renewable resources in its service territory.

It’s also worth mentioning that Amazon’s fuel cell announcement of 2022 included a green hydrogen commitment of 10,950 tons starting in 2025. “The company will start to use green hydrogen to replace grey hydrogen, diesel, and other fossil fuels as it works to decarbonize its operations, and this green hydrogen supply contract will provide enough annual power for 30,000 forklifts or 800 heavy-duty trucks used in long-haul transportation,” Amazon stated.

The Hydrogen Fuel Station Chicken-And-Egg Problem, Solved

If you caught that thing about heavy-duty fuel cell trucks, that’s where Amazon is treading more cautiously. However, they have been making some moves in that direction. Last week, for example, Daimler Truck announced that Amazon would be among five companies to give its new Mercedes-Benz branded fuel cell truck a trial spin in Germany.

Walmart is another fuel cell forklift early adopter looking to decarbonize its class 8 heavy duty trucks. Last year the company issued a decarbonization explainer, in which it explained that the cost of hydrogen was presenting a barrier to stepping all the way up from forklifts to class 8 fuel cell trucks. However, Walmart has undertaken the intermediary step of testing a fuel cell truck that falls into the “yard truck” class, used for jockeying trailers around warehouses and other campus-type settings.

“The truck is manufactured by Capacity in Longview, Texas, and has a range of expected benefits including an operating time of up to 10 hours on a single refuel, faster refuel time and less dependence on the electric charging grid,” Walmart noted last year. “Plus, we can utilize the same infrastructure as our hydrogen forklifts while producing little to no emissions.”

“Same infrastructure” could mean the same fueling stations, much as Amazon foresees deploying its forklift fueling stations to accommodate other fuel cell vehicles.

Here Comes The US Fuel Cell Truck Fueling Station Network

In the same announcement, Walmart also threw in a hint that the cost of hydrogen would not be a limiting factor for much longer.

“In fact, it’s because of these benefits that we see hydrogen as an option for our long-haul over the road tractors – will have more to share on that soon,” they said, somewhat cryptically.

Statements like these have led some industry observers to foresee that a fuel station network for hydrogen fuel cell trucks is already in the works.

Writing for Freightwaves last week, for example, reporter Alan Adler noted that the forklift fuel station networks of Amazon and Walmart could help support a nationwide fuel cell truck station network.

“It’s true that what exists is primarily dedicated to material-handling fuel cell-powered forklifts,” Adler observed, “But it is not inconceivable that some of those 120 locations where hydrogen is dispensed could form a backbone, or at least contribute, to hydrogen fueling for over-the-road long-haul trucks.”

Momentum seems to be building. The California company FirstElement Fuel, for one, has already jumped the fuel cell truck gun. On December 20, the company announced a 10-year deal to provide its fuel station in Oakland, California, to refuel fuel cell trucks produced by the US firm Nikola.

Mobile fueling stations are also emerging to help solve the fuel station problem, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Image (cropped): Green hydrogen factors into Amazon’s plans for hydrogen fuel cell forklifts and other vehicles (courtesy of Amazon).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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