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NREL teaming with Oorja to validate direct methanol fuel cell technology in material handling applications

The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is collaborating with Oorja Protonics, a developer and manufacturer of direct methanol fuel cell technology (earlier post) on a two-year project to deploy and demonstrate methanol fuel cells for power pallet jacks in four commercial wholesale distribution centers.

The total cost of the project is just more than $2 million; NREL will contribute $900,000 to fund the project and Oorja will provide $1.2 million. NREL will collect and analyze data from the deployment project and will provide a third-party assessment of the performance of these emerging methanol fuel cell technologies in material handling applications. Using data from this project, NREL expects to help industry understand the business case for using methanol-fueled fuel cells in material handling applications.

A type of proton exchange membrane fuel cell, the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) uses liquid methanol rather than hydrogen (either stored on-board or reformed on-board from a different fuel) as the feed. Methanol (CH3OH) is mixed with water and fed directly to the fuel cell anode, where it is oxidized on a catalyst layer to form carbon dioxide, hydrogen ions (H+) and the electrons that travel through the external circuit as the electric output of the fuel cell. Positive ions (H+) are transported across the proton exchange membrane to the cathode where they react with oxygen to produce water, which is then recycled for input with the methanol.

The OorjaPac Model III DMFC operates as an on-board battery charger for a wide variety of Class III vehicles in the material handling industry. Energy output is 20 kWh/day, with an output voltage of 24V/36V/48V. Idle to peak power time is less than 10 minutes, and refueling takes less than 1 minute. A 12-liter tank lasts approximately 12-16 hours.

During the course of the technology validation project, 75 direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) power packs will provide power to Class III material handling lifts at warehouses operated by Unified Grocers (Stockton, Calif., and Commerce, Calif.), Earp Distribution (Kansas City, Kan.), and Testa Produce (Chicago). The fuel cell-powered lifts will use renewable bio-methanol, an organically derived fuel made from crude glycerin resulting from vegetable oil and animal fat processing. Methanol offers high fuel density and low fuel and fueling infrastructure costs.

The deployment project offers a significant opportunity to increase the number of commercially available DMFC systems, expand practical user operating experiences, and validate the performance of the systems using real-world data.

—NREL Project Manager Todd Ramsden

Fuel cell-powered lifts offer longer runtimes and increased autonomy compared to traditional battery-powered lifts. Fuel cell-powered material handling equipment eliminates the need for battery swapping and electrical demand associated with traditional battery lifts. By eliminating time-consuming battery changes, fuel cell lifts can increase overall distribution center productivity. Eliminating electric grid based battery charging also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. By operating on renewable methanol delivered to warehouse sites, the fuel cell-powered lifts used in this deployment project are expected to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million pounds over the course of the project.

NREL is the Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.


Henry Gibson

Identical machinery should be provided with ZEBRA batteries and others to compare the costs and performance. Firefly and its supporters and cells are long gone, but EFFPOWER and ATRAVERDA have something to say about cheap lead technology that is made lighter with bipolar cells. Cords hanging from the ceiling at various places can give opportunity charging of a few watt-hours at a time. Computer power supply technology allows a built in very low weight charger.

Methanol is toxic and you can swallow far more grams of metallic lead or mercury than you can of methanol and live or retain your sight. (I just had to use the toxic argument) Actually methanol may be just the perfect fuel to keep on hand and use when needed. Methanol was at least one of the very first liquid biofuels when it was made by distilling wood. Now it is best and cheapest made from coal or natural gas. The chemical engineer who develops a direct partial oxidation process to make methanol from natural gas, will have gained one of the most evasive goals of the natural gas industry. ..HG..


Methanol is a good fit for small turbo engines and range extending fuel cells


fuel cells of various types are quickly replacing batteries in lift trucks all over the place. Its just a perfect fit for the tech.

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