Hydrogen fuel cells are proving to be a viable replacement for lead-acid batteries used in forklifts at warehouses, according to Keith Wipke, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the United States.
The technology works by replacing traditional lead-acid batteries in forklifts and other equipment with hydrogen fuel cells that can be refilled by on-site tanks.
“The fuel cell reacts hydrogen with oxygen from the air (and) that produces pure water, heat and electricity. It behaves much like a battery,” said Wipke.
Canadian Tire plans to implement hydrogen-powered vehicles, and potentially hydrogen production, at a controversial 1.5 million-square-foot distribution warehouse currently under construction in Caledon.
Wipke said many warehouses opt to have their hydrogen shipped in and stored in liquid form on-site, where it can be protected by concrete posts and fences, like propane tanks are protected at gas stations. Other facilities may choose to manufacture the hydrogen on-site through one of two main methods: electrolysis or steam methane reforming.
The first involves using electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in water — a common experiment performed in high school science classes. The second is slightly more complicated and involves reacting steam with methane gas. Both are safe if the right precautions are taken, Wipke said.
“They’re both very safe. They’ve been done a long time,” said Wipke. “You don’t hear a lot about hydrogen incidents in the news because there aren’t many things that happen.”
Wipke said the Hindenburg disaster — where a hydrogen-filled blimp collapsed in flames in 1937 — has no relevance to modern manufacture and use of the gas.
The production and storage of hydrogen is regulated by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, according to spokesperson Wilson Lee.
“The risks associated with the operation of an H2 facility would be similar to other liquid or gaseous fuels facilities such as a gasoline station, (or) a propane refuelling station, a natural gas distribution system,” said Lee in an emailed response.
Wipke said the safety risk of hydrogen can be even lower than that presented by gasoline because hydrogen, being lighter than air, tends to dissipate into the atmosphere while gasoline pools up.