The fuel cell drive is environmentally friendly and has the potential to change the area of intralogistics. This also applies to the food industry with its delicate products and its efforts towards greater sustainability. In an article written for Lebensmittel Zeitung (issue 5/2019 of "Food Products Newspaper"), NOW GmbH Managing Director, Wolfgang Axthammer, highlights the fact that the introduction of fuel cell drives in intralogistics is supported by federal funding.

The first European grocery stores are now using forklifts and other warehouse vehicles with fuel cells. Walmart and Amazon in the USA are already further along. The pioneers benefit from the fact that this drive technology is both clean and reliable.

Fuel cell systems are environmentally friendly and can make a difference in intralogistics. This also applies to the foodstuffs industry with its delicate goods and its efforts towards achieving greater sustainability. But in Germany and the rest of Europe, fuel cells are often still seen as a technology of the distant future. Yet more than 25,000 electric industrial trucks with fuel cells are already in use worldwide every day. The food industry and food retailers in particular can benefit from extremely short refuelling times, falling prices, safety, cleanliness and, above all, the green image of the fuel cell. In addition, the federal government supports the introduction of fuel cell drive systems in intralogistics with subsidies.

At Carrefour, the first 140 warehouse vehicles powered by hydrogen are in operation. The pioneers among the European food retailers are Carrefour and Grand Frais/Prelocentre from France, Colruyt from Belgium and Norgesgruppen/Asko from Norway. Together, they operate around 300 industrial trucks powered by hydrogen through their distribution centres. They follow international pioneers such as Walmart and Amazon, who have long since discovered this technology and its advantages for themselves and are deploying large fleets.

Low lift trucks, tractors or reach trucks as well as counterbalanced trucks: The fuel cell technology for industrial trucks is mature. It is used tens of thousands of times worldwide. Suppliers such as Linde, Jungheinrich, Toyota and Still have been developing series production industrial trucks with fuel cells for years. Many of their models can now be ordered in a hydrogen version.

Industrial trucks with fuel cells have seven key advantages: Productivity, lower costs, high performance availability, safe handling, clean operation, sustainability and low space requirements. The high productivity is due to the fact that it only takes one to three minutes for such a vehicle to be refuelled with hydrogen – compared to battery change times of 10 to 20 minutes for electrically-run competitors.

The cost of the technology has fallen significantly in recent years. In contrast to lithium-ion devices, there are no peaks that place a heavy load on the power grid and cause high costs, even with high energy requirements. The general conditions in Germany are good, especially as several gas producers are ensuring competition. In addition, funding from national and European programmes, which currently accounts for around 40 percent of additional investment costs, is also lending support.

Moreover, there is a high level of performance availability. Forklifts with fuel cell drive systems are particularly interesting for companies with energy-intensive deployments and those operating on a three-shift basis. This not only applies to the distribution centres of large retailers, but also to the warehouses of wholesalers and the grocery industry as a whole. The technology works reliably both indoors and out, even in deep-freeze warehouses at temperatures as low as minus 30° C. Due to the elimination of the need to change batteries and therefore potentially dangerous battery acid, the handling of fuel cells is particularly safe.

Another significant advantage is that fuel cells are a clean alternative to diesel and lead-acid batteries. Harmful pollutant residues are being increasingly critically perceived by the public. Many consumers are mindful of healthy food and the environment, and they reward corresponding steps that are undertaken by companies. But the technology is also sustainable in a second respect: fuel cells today already have a service life of around 10,000 operating hours. This reduces life cycle costs and environmental impacts. The operation of the vehicles is free of harmful emissions since the only by-products of electricity generation are heat and small quantities of water, which is pumped out during refuelling. If the hydrogen is produced from renewable sources, the entire life cycle is emission-free.

The benefit of small space requirement is also a relevant advantage. When fuel cells are used, there is no need for battery charging stations or changing areas – nor are spare batteries required. As such, this spaced is saved. The hydrogen refuelling points only occupy an area of 2 to 3 m².

For all these reasons, the fuel cell is in the process of conquering its place in the food retail trade sector.