Methanol, hydrogen fuel cells gain believers

News Story
- 27 Jan 2011 ( #498 ) - United States
5 min read
Methanol and hydrogen fuel cells operate with different properties, but each chemical in a fuel cell is able to overcome traditional time-consuming battery swapping in forklifts and other materials handling equipment.

Healthy examples at Earp Distribution in Kansas and Sysco Corp's Baugh Northeast Co-op Inc unit in Virginia indicate growth of industrial acceptance of fuel cell applications including methanol-based technology from Oorja Protonics Inc and hydrogen-based units from Plug Power Inc.


Earp Distribution


Wholesaler Earp Distribution began using methanol fuel cells from Oorja Protonics Inc in December.


Earp Distribution handles certain Midwestern geographic markets for McDonald's Corp of Oak Brook, Illinois and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc of Denver, Colorado. McDonald's and Chipotle are publicly traded firms.

Oorja Protonics of Fremont, California installed 24 of its OorjaPac model III fuel cell systems on six single pallet jacks and 18 double-pallet jacks at the Kansas City, Kansas warehouse of rapidly growing Earp Distribution. Refueling takes less than one minute, saving on labour costs associated with standard battery-changing procedures.

Dealerships in Kansas City, Missouri providing Earp with materials handling equipment services include Lift Truck Sales & Service Inc for Crown units and Heubel Material Handling Inc for Raymond products.

Until looking at the Oorja technology, Earp Distribution did not operate any Crown equipment.

Prior to making a commitment, the Earp operations team worked with Oorja to establish a business case for the technology and conducted trials in August with nine-month-old and six-year-old batteries. Managers found that the continuous trickle charge does not result in the battery getting hot. Post-charge, each battery operated in a satisfactory manner although the older unit used more methanol than the new one, according to the operations team.

Operators saw no change in performance and reported that the power source was rising all the way through the cycle.

The OorjaPac model III liquid fuel cell operates as an on-board battery charger for a variety of Class 3 vehicles in the materials handling industry. An OorjaPac keeps the battery at a constant state of charge, eliminating the need for battery swapping and rapid charging. Further, the OorjaPac provides full grid independence and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 30% to 66%, the company says.

"We are pleased that Earp Distribution is using our fuel cells," says Sanjiv Malhotra, chief executive officer of Oorja Protonics. "Earp's leadership is showing that green solutions are good for business and the environment." Malhotra founded Oorja in 2005.

Earp Distribution explored state-of-the-art alternatives for battery charging in its development of a new 160,000 sqft (14,400 sqm) headquarters and warehouse facility now under construction on 23 acres in Edwardsville, Kansas.

Earp Distribution will move its operations 5.5 miles (8.8 km) and, in June, begin operations in the new structure, projected to cost more than USD23 million. Earp Distribution will leave a 100,000 sqft (9,000 sqm) facility it has occupied since 1984.

A 1,500-gallon methanol storage tank will be located outside the building in lieu of the usual 55-gallon methanol drum inside the building for refilling procedures.

Earp Distribution has received support for the building project. The Kansas Department of Commerce awarded USD10 million in federally tax-exempt recovery zone facility bonds, the Kansas Department of Commerce allocated USD5 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Edwardsville City Council authorised a 10-year 65% property tax abatement and issuance of a multiple series of industrial revenue bonds.

Don and Marie Earp founded Earp Meat Co, now doing business as Earp Distribution, as a partnership in 1954, selling fresh meat to restaurants, hotels and institutions in the greater Kansas City area. The company was incorporated in 1967 and is in its third generation of family ownership, currently led by Cliff Earp, chairman.

The company began selling fresh hamburger meat to two McDonald's restaurants in Kansas City in 1962 and became a distributor to McDonald's of various other food products in 1970.

In 1998, the company began delivering to Chipotle restaurants in the Kansas City market. McDonald's was an investor in Chipotle from 1998-2006.

At 2009 year's end, Earp Distribution was supplying frozen, refrigerated, dry and promotional food and goods for 418 McDonald's restaurants and 56 Chipotle restaurants in Kansas, western Missouri and parts of Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The delivery fleet includes 50 semi-trailer trucks.

In addition to the pallet jacks, forklifts and reach trucks handle materials in the Earp warehouse.


Sysco Corp


A redistribution centre of a Sysco Corp subsidiary is receiving 100 GenDrive hydrogen fuel cell units from Plug Power Inc.


Nineteen GenDrive units for Class 3 pallet jacks were delivered in December at the Front Royal, Virginia centre of the subsidiary, Baugh Northeast Co-op Inc.

Five Class 1 sitdown counterbalance forklifts and 76 Class 2 standup reach trucks are slated for conversion soon. The Sysco unit placed the order in November.

In changing to GenDrive power units, Baugh Northeast will eliminate the need to purchase multiple batteries for each forklift truck. Conversion to fuel cells will allow increased fleet utilisation and productivity within the facility.

Baugh Northeast will lower its operating costs.
Removal of the infrastructure associated with the lead-acid battery charging, changing and maintenance will open 5,000 sqft (450 sqm) of facility space for other business operations.

The 800,000 sqft (7,200 sqm) Baugh Northeast redistribution centre is the third Sysco facility to convert its materials handling fleet to GenDrive fuel cells. Prior conversions have occurred at the Sysco North Houston and Sysco Philadelphia distribution sites.

The Front Royal centre began operations in early 2005, has created more than 300 onsite jobs and services 14 Sysco-affiliated companies in the north east.

As of 3 July, publicly traded Houston, Texas-based Sysco had about 46,000 full-time employees, 180 storage facilities and, for the previous 53 weeks, profit of USD1.18 billion on sales of USD37.24 billion. Sysco distributes food and related products primarily to approximately 400,000 customers including restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, lodging establishments and other foodservice customers.

"Once again, Sysco has distinguished itself as a forward-thinking industry leader," says Andy Marsh, chief executive officer for Plug Power. "And for Plug Power, it's extremely rewarding to see our commercially viable GenDrive products making a substantial impact for another repeat customer."

Plug Power of Latham, New York has more than 1,000 fuel cell units in the field and more than two million hours of run time. Plug Power has long-standing relationships with its key accounts and has reported fuel cell implementation at a Pottsville, Pennsylvania retail service centre of Wegmans Food Markets Inc, a Landover, Maryland distribution centre of Whole Foods Market Inc and a Springfield, Missouri freight service centre of FedEx Corp.
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