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A worker drives a material handling train powered by hydrogen fuel cells at the BMW plant in Greer, South Carolina. The plant is home to the world's largest fleet of fuel cell forklifts. | Photo courtesy of BMW Manufacturing.
Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), the BMW manufacturing plant in Greer, South Carolina demonstrated the use of unique source to power some of its operations: bio-methane gas from garbage at a nearby landfill. This BMW factory is also home to the largest fuel cell powered forklift fleet in the world, with more than 300 units.
In a first-of-its-kind demonstration, EERE, BMW, and project partners Ameresco, Gas Technology Institute, and the South Carolina Research Authority fueled a small sample of these forklifts with hydrogen produced on-site from the bio-methane gas from the nearby landfill. The first challenge to overcome was converting the bio-methane gas into hydrogen. This required the development and testing of multiple tanks with catalysts for removing contaminants. The second challenge was getting the hydrogen clean enough to be used in the fuel cell. To do this, EERE and BMW had to purge the gas stream of all non-hydrogen molecules, including nitrogen.
Forklifts powered by lead-acid batteries can present several challenges, especially for high freight volume throughput with multiple daily shifts, like the BMW facility. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can be rapidly refueled, boosting productivity by eliminating the time and cost associated with battery change-outs and charging. Fuel cell powered lift trucks can reduce the labor cost of refueling/recharging by up to 80% and require 75% less space as compared with battery recharging infrastructure. In addition, fuel cells provide consistent power throughout shifts, unlike conventional forklifts which degrade in performance during a shift.
The Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) conducts comprehensive efforts to overcome the technological, economic, and institutional barriers to the widespread commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cells.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.