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US Navy seeks hydrogen-powered forklifts

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US Navy boffins are seeking to kit out American military stores depots with hydrogen-powered forklifts, or - as they prefer - "hydrogen-fueled material handling equipment".

Back in January, the Naval Surface Warfare Centre, crane division, issued a request for proposals seeking contractors to provide hydrogen-driven forklifts and fuelling stations to top them up, to "reduce existing oil consumption rates", and "initiate the transition towards a future hydrogen economy."

The idea is that existing electrically-powered forklifts would have their current battery packs replaced by hydrogen fuel cells.

"In total, [the US military supplies agency] operates over 3,000 forklifts, of which approximately half are electric-powered," say the naval sci-tech researchers.

"Proposers are expected to offer at a minimum a complete power unit that is equivalent in form, fit, and function and equal or superior in performance to the lead acid or nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery system currently used in these forklifts."

In contrast to various other suggested uses for fuel-cells and hydrogen, this sounds relatively practical and achievable. Forklifts in a facility don't need to hold their hydrogen fuel for long periods, don't need long endurance, and can refuel as often as they like. The tricky problem of containing the hydrogen (or producing it on the spot) can be hived off into the filling-point infrastructure rather than happening in the vehicle.

That said, it seems likely that the hydrogen used in the new forklifts will still be ultimately produced by burning ordinary hydrocarbon fuels in some form. Hydrogen technology is merely a means of storing energy generated elsewhere - just like the electric forklifts which are being replaced. However, the NSW-Crane programme might advance the state of the hydrogen art without being too inconvenient.

Apparently, the Navy received four proposals. The winning bid was that from a Pennsylvania firm, Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. A $5,608,817 R&D contract was awarded on Wednesday, and work is expected to be complete by 2010. ®

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