Airside Winter 2019

Plug Power works with MULAG on hydrogen fuel cell power

There was plenty of evidence of GSE operators – and therefore suppliers – looking at the benefits of lithium-ion battery technology. Still not on everybody’s radar, however, is another option: hydrogen fuel cells. One GSE supplier that is taking the option seriously is German manufacturer MULAG, which is working with Plug Power, a supplier of such technology

Established in 1997, Plug Power is a North American company headquartered in New York. It considered all sorts of applications for hydrogen fuel cell technology before beginning to sell into the logistics business; materials handling equipment (MHE) such as pallet stackers offered a significant potential market and big names such as retailer Walmart and e-tailer Amazon have become important Plug Power customers.

In fact, there are about 30,000 Plug Power hydrogen cell-powered MHE units now out there, says Tim Schulz, the company’s director sales – Germany, who was on the MULAG stand at inter airport.

Plug Power’s biggest customer site that employs hydrogen technology, he adds, is a BMW facility in North Carolina, which has about 500 MHE units equipped with Plug Power hydrogen fuel cells.

But the company is now looking beyond this market for expansion, and getting into GSE applications.  It is also keen to develop beyond North America and into Europe. To this end, Plug Power partnered with MULAG to equip one of its Comet 4 tugs, known as a Comet 4 FC (Fuel Cell) with one of its hydrogen fuel cells.

That tug then underwent operational testing at Germany’s Hamburg Airport. On trial for two months between the beginning of August and late September. The airport has provided positive feedback on the vehicle’s performance, Schulz confirms. A required speed of 30km/h was reached and exceeded, while acceleration rates were found to be good.

Hamburg Airport is looking to new technologies to support its green agenda, Schulz observes, and the absence of harmful emissions from hydrogen fuel cells is an obvious attraction.

Of course, there are other options. Hamburg has battery-powered GSE of many types already, but lead acid batteries take a comparatively long time to charge, while lithium-ion recharging represents a significant drain on the electrical grid, Schulz points out.

Hydrogen fuel cells can be refilled in a matter of a few minutes, and require very little space to do so. The fuel cells and hydrogen can be stored outside in the open air, rather than taking up valuable space indoors (in fact, hydrogen refuelling can also be performed indoors).

These represent significant potential benefits, says Schulz, especially on a 24/7 busy and congested airport ramp, which may well offset the higher initial cost of hydrogen fuel cells.

The partnership with MULAG having gone well, Schulz informs that Plug Power is developing a new hydrogen fuel cell for the GSE supplier that should be ready for installation in MULAG vehicles by early next year.

Moreover, “I am very confident that Hamburg Airport is moving in this direction,” he adds.

Schulz believes that a hydrogen fuel cell-equipped baggage tug would perhaps need to be refuelled once or twice a day, while the cells themselves might have a lifetime of about 10 years.

The MULAG commitment

MULAG has been delighted with what the partnership has achieved so far.

Recalling how the hydrogen fuel cell project got under way in the first place, MULAG marketing manager Oliver Kesy explains: “We wanted to provide an economically feasible alternative to diesel-driven vehicles and avoid the negative aspects of electric drive alternatives (like long loading cycles).

“MULAG had already demonstrated an initial stage of development with an H2logic fuel cell at inter airport Europe in Munich in 2013.”

Hamburg Airport helped get the ball rolling as well. “The first contacts were made via Hamburg Airport, which wanted to set up a pilot project to test the replacement of existing CNG-powered vehicles by hydrogen technology,” Kesy remembers.

It’s not all plain sailing, of course. “Despite many technical advantages, the acceptance of fuel cell drive at airports depends heavily on a corresponding infrastructure investment in hydrogen filling stations, which is why this technology has hardly been used so far,” Kesy notes.

But, “The tests of our new updated prototype with the Plug Power fuel cell, which were carried in summer this year at Hamburg Airport for several weeks, were extremely positive and without any downtimes.

“The successful tests at Hamburg Airport represent the next step to the final development of a vehicle ready for series production in 2020,” Kesy concludes.