ARCHIVED - Hydrogen lifts the load
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April 06, 2009— Vancouver, British Columbia
Late in 2008, Plug Power Inc. sold more than 200 GenDrive™ hybrid hydrogen fuel cell packs to Central Grocers Inc., to power forklifts in a giant new central warehouse complex in Illinois.
Based in the U.S., Plug Power gained the technology in 2007 when it acquired a Canadian company, Cellex Power Products, which now builds and sells the technology as Plug Power Canada. Cellex was incubated in the Vancouver-based NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation (NRC-IFCI).
The GenDrive power units consist of hydrogen fuel cells produced by another Canadian manufacturer, Ballard Power Systems, which are integrated with battery or super capacitor storage and sophisticated controller electronics. These components are then packaged for rugged environments.
Sliding straight into the standard lead-acid battery compartments in existing electric forklifts, the power units pack hidden benefits, says Warren Brower, product marketing manager at Plug Power's Latham, New York headquarters. The hydrogen power packs are non-toxic, have zero emissions and last years longer than batteries. They also streamline warehouse operations. A fuel cell takes only two or three minutes to refill with hydrogen once or twice a day, allowing operators to move more material. By comparison, charging and changing lead acid batteries takes hours, and charging rooms eat into profitable warehouse space.
"Fuel cells eliminate the need for a great deal of equipment," says Brower. "Our fuel cells go into a lift truck and stay in it."
Adrian Corless, now Plug Power Canada's Chief Technology Officer, began developing the fuel cell packs with Cellex in 1999. At the time, the infant fuel cell industry was targeting obvious "megamarkets" — automotive and home power — but Cellex CEO (now Plug Power Canada President) Chris Reid knew these markets needed massive, unbuilt hydrogen infrastructure to work. He also knew warehouse complexes concentrated enough forklifts to simplify hydrogen delivery and make forklift fuel cells quickly practical and profitable. Powering forklifts is a niche market, but its potential worldwide value is $6-8 billion dollars a year.
When Reid heard that NRC was establishing its fuel cell institute, Cellex became the first tenant of NRC-IFCI in November 1999. There, it gained access to high grade offices, machine shops, Vancouver's first publicly available hydrogen-safe labs for testing its prototypes, as well as gas procurement, information technology and administrative support. Cellex also gained crucial networking opportunities and the credibility to attract investors.
Its initial product development went so well that Cellex raised enough investment capital to lease its own building the next summer. The former two-person concern graduated from the incubator with 330 square metres of offices and labs. Over the next six years, it prepared its product for market, as customers began to notice the obvious cost advantages. By 2006, clients like Wal-Mart had tried Cellex fuel cells and wanted more.
"Having those customers validate our technology and start to purchase it in a commercial form led Plug Power to make the move to purchase Cellex," says Corless. "NRC was very helpful to us. Because of the infrastructure and support it provided, we were able to demonstrate our first prototypes seven months later. Without NRC — the investment they were willing to make on infrastructure, and their willingness to incubate new companies — it would have been difficult for us to get off to such a quick start and attract customers as quickly as we did."
NRC-IFCI has since grown into a regional networking and innovation hub. The institute is currently incubating 14 hydrogen fuel cell companies, and houses the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA) as well as NRC-IRAP (Industrial Research Assistance Program) and NRC-CISTI (Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information) offices. It continues to be a catalyst, attracting new foreign investment, start-ups and spin-offs to grow Vancouver's fuel cell technology cluster. "NRC-IFCI is a facility that any one company by itself would be unable to build, but that many companies have a need for," says John Tak, President and CEO of CHFCA.
- NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation
- NRC Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information
- NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program
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National Research Council of Canada
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