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Nissan North America Deploys Oorja Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Packs for Material Handling Equipment

Nissan North America (NNA) has commercially deployed methanol fuel cell packs to power material handling equipment (tugs) at its Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant. The methanol fuel cells from Oorja Protonics (earlier post) provide a more energy efficient and cost-effective battery-charging process for the 60 tugs that are used to transport thousands of vehicle parts throughout the 5.4 million-square-foot facility.

By using OorjaPac, Nissan is able to get rid of more than 70 electric battery chargers that were consuming almost 540,000 kWh of electricity annually. This will reduce Nissan’s electric bill and eliminate more than 300 tons of CO2 emissions that were being released into the atmosphere.

A direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) uses liquid methanol rather than hydrogen. 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 recylcled for input with the methanol.

Nissan is retrofitting the 60 tugs with methanol fuel cells that are filled with methanol by the technicians who drive them. The fuel cell provides a constant charge that puts less strain on the tugs electrical system, increasing the life of the battery and other electrical parts.

The methanol fuel cells have made us more productive by saving us almost 35 hours a day that were spent by employees changing out batteries. There’s no changing out of low or dead batteries, which involves a battery technician and 15 to 20 minutes. Now the tug driver can refill the fuel cell in less than one minute and they’re on their way.

—Mark Sorgi, manager, Material Handling

Since no batteries are exchanged and the drivers refuel the tugs themselves, some battery technicians have been moved to other positions in the plant. The time saved by not having to change batteries has created a more efficient material-handling operation, allowing Nissan to reassign four material handlers.

Nissan had trialed the OorjaPac systems for 18 months in the Smyrna plant, prior to the purchase.

Comments

Henry Gibson

The actual use of fuel cells in this commercial environment is fantastic.

There are no figures on the economics, and there are no figures on the well-to-wheel efficiencies or CO2 releases. If used in France this system would increase net CO2 releases as compared to full electric operation. The production of methanol is similar to the production of jet fuel from coal in that it releases extra CO2 and requires the use of chemical energy.

It is known that large slow moving ship engines can have an efficiency of 50 percent. By using them in in combination with heat recovery steam combined cycle turbines, the overall efficiency might even be %60. Gas turbine combined cycle machines can also get %60. The large ship engines can run with a high percentage of natural gas or even with some unrefined crude oils or even on waste oils and avoid the CO2 cost and energy cost of refining. Fuel cells rarely operate above 60 percent efficiency and require highly refined fuels.

Battery changing could have been optimised at the breaks of the tug operators and could have been eased by the use of lighter weight ZEBRA batteries. Power could have been purchased from windtubines and stored in stationary batteries as well as the vehicle batteries and replacement batteries to reduce CO2 levels to near zero.

Whilst the generalities of this fuel cell use seem promising, complete economic figures for its operation and the prior operation and alternatives are not available.

It is nice to have such fuel cells available for use because they can be quietly fitted to electric cars to eliminate the fruitless and falsly damaging conversations about limited range. They can also reduce the demand for uselessly large batteries for such electric cars.

The next step is to remove three forths of the expensive batteries from the next Tesla production model. TH!NK would increase its sales potential by several times with the installation of such fuel cells; even though, they would rarely or never be used. ..HG..

Mannstein

"The next step is to remove three forths of the expensive batteries from the next Tesla production model."

Take it up with Tesla.

HarveyD

A fuel cell is an interesting alternative to replace ICE gensets in PHEVs. Could they be made cheap enough?

3PeaceSweet

I'm not sure a fuel cell could compete with an ICE on price at the moment. A small 2 or 3 cylinder ICE could put out 20kW for a cost of a few hundred $ and running as a fixed speed range extender would be about 30% efficient comapred to 40-50% for a fuel cell, but since the range extender would only be running when the battery was run down perhaps after the first 10-20 miles (or more depending on the range of the battery) I think fuel cells would be far more useful running on methane in CHP applications

Engineer-Poet

The claims for this are vague, at best.  Supposedly 300 tons of CO2 emissions are eliminated from powerplants, but there is no accounting for the CO2 emissions from the methanol FCs or the plants which supply them.  Carbon emissions from methanol are fixed at some minimum, while electricity from wind or nuclear can be zero.

What's the cost of these FCs?  Efficiency, either in % or kWh/kg?  We're not told (the previous post doesn't say and the release announcement link in it is 404).

It seems strange that a battery swap needs to take 15 minutes.  I could design a system to swap batteries in less than a minute, and I'm not even a mechanical engineer (I'd just steal a system used for swapping Caterpillar diesels out of heavy vehicles, which is more than sufficient to handle the job).  I have to wonder if there isn't something else going on here.

wintermane2000

Cant argue with the results ep they obviously are saving alot by getting rid of those batteries and spent 18 months testing the system already so for sure they know the facts.

7 jobs reassigned an entire battery barn replaced by a little self serve fueling station and much better operation of the tugs.. win win win.

Engineer-Poet

You beg the question, wintermane:  if Shai Agassi can automatically swap a battery out of a car in a couple of minutes, why can't Nissan do that with a fork truck?  That would also eliminate the dedicated jobs.

Nobody's talking about the cost of methanol.  If it's at BTU-parity with gasoline and the fuel cells are 50% efficient, the power from fuel cells will cost about 15¢/kWh.  That 540,000 kWh/year will cost about $80,000; at overnight rates, Nissan could probably charge for about a third of this.  The reduced wear and tear on the batteries has to be balanced against the cost of the FCs.  Then you've got the new dependence on liquid fuels, which is the opposite of the way the automobiles themselves are going.

Now that the battery techs have been re-assigned, the plant is free to go to battery-based solutions without dedicated labor.  I can see the FC experiment being replaced by another as soon as methanol toxicity causes a workman's comp claim or there is a fire.

wintermane2000

Battery barns arent exactly safe to be in either ep. Oh and no going to lith ion batteries wouldnt help at all walmart looked at that and its basicaly less useful then just sticking with lead acid packs. Fuel cells simply are that much better for this job then batteries.

Engineer-Poet

How do you know fuel cells are better?  You don't have any more numbers than I do.  You haven't any idea whether the economics change with automatic swapping of lead-acid batteries, fast-charging Li-ion or ultracapacitors filled up on driver breaks, carbon taxes affecting methanol, or any of the other legal and technical changes which are not just possible but probable in the near future.

Henry Gibson

All of you commentors are obviously thinking.

I would like to drive a TESLA for a few miles but would not pay to buy one. The same is true for TH!NK. When an engine alternator with permanent magnets can be built for $100 or less, fuel cells are far too expensive, but I think that they are better than solar cells for most uses. I would buy a fuel cell to keep UPS or RV batteries charged if they were cheap enough. ..HG..

Engineer-Poet

I'd buy a Tesla if I could afford one.  I'd love to have an Aptera, which is much closer to (but still beyond) my current budget.  I'd love to be able to avoid the use of any liquid fuel in my daily driving.

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