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Hybrids, a win-win for lifting and handling vehicles

Forklifts and similar material-handling vehicles pump out eight times more CO2 emissions than regular passenger vehicles. Danish and German specialists teamed up to bring these large diesel-powered workhorses into the 21st century thanks to developments in hybrid hydrogen fuel-cell technology. 

Vehicles with large and typically polluting diesel engines like buses, trucks and forklifts were earmarked as a frontrunner commercial market for hybrids combining the best features of today’s battery propulsion technology and  LGP/diesel-powered combustion engines.

Recognising this potential, the Eurostar-funded HyLIFT-FLEX project got to work on a third-generation hybrid system for clean and efficient material-handling vehicles. In a win-win scenario, hybrids offer the benefits of silent and zero-emission electric power and the proven reliability of combustion engines.

The project’s focus was on an important commercial sub-sector: towing tractors for aviation and heavy-duty (2.5-5 tonne) forklifts. The global market for forklift trucks in general is growing by ~6 % a year,  according to Research and Markets analysts, and is predicted to reach around $ 56.3  (€ 48.5) billion by 2021.

The team also anticipated the commercial use of hydrogen and fuel cells in material-handling vehicles as a precursor to wider use in commercial road vehicles, making massive in-roads into fossil-free, zero-emission transportation. 

Powered by water and ingenuity

The marriage of hydrogen and fuel-cell technology also functions as a driver of further innovation aimed at helping the EU achieve its ambitious ‘low-carbon economy’ goals, to cut emissions from transport to more than 60 % below 1990 levels by 2050.

“In the short term, most progress can be found in petrol and diesel engines that could still be made more fuel-efficient,” notes the European Commission’s Climate Action website. But in the mid- to longer-term, it continues, “plug-in hybrid and electric cars will allow for steeper emissions reductions.”

Basic chemistry classes remind us of hydrogen’s close relationship with water, the most abundant compound on Earth. Hydrogen exists in almost all organic compounds including the human body. Hydrogen is also an infinite source of energy because it can be split from water and easily carried on-board most vehicles ready for fuel cells to convert it into electricity that powers the engine. And the only emissions generated by this process are water. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Elevated results

While the project ended some years ago, it left a lasting impression on the partners’ R&D and capacity in what has proven to be a burgeoning field. 

H2 Logic, the main Eurostar partner from Denmark, capitalised on its expertise in the sector to develop advanced and versatile hydrogen fuelling stations, marketed as H2Station®. The company was later bought by the much larger NEL group, which is listed on the Oslo stock exchange.

The German partner, Mulag Fahrzeugwerk Heinz Wössner, is a respected manufacturer of high-tech products and special solutions for airport ground support and roadside maintenance vehicles. Outcomes from HyLIFT-FLEX were fed into new product development. Today, Mulag offers a range of drive technologies in its airport ground-support equipment range, including hybrid diesel-electric tractors. According to the company, the benefits of this dual-fuel approach include “emission-free indoor use [and] a large operating range on the airport apron”.