BMW South Carolina plant reaches 1M hydrogen cell refuels

Forklifts in BMW's largest factory fueled their hydrogen cell batteries for the millionth time.

The BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina has reached a renewable energy milestone. As of December 2015 the plant has refueled its fleet of 350 hydrogen cell-powered forklifts 1 million times. The forklifts use hydrogen fuel cells provided by New York-based Plug Power Inc. These cells replaced the standard lead acid battery, creating a more productive factory.

Hydrogen cells vs lead acid batteries
Lead acid batteries, while having a high weight-to-power ratio, compete poorly against hydrogen fuel cells. According to Linde, the company that fuels the BMW plant, hydrogen fuel cells are quicker to refuel, meaning the forklifts are back to work sooner. The fuel cells are cost-efficient as well. Since BMW doesn't need to draw electricity to recharge lead acid batteries, it saves on utilities. Unlike with lead acid batteries, there's no power degradation over time, keeping a forklift operating at optimum efficiency until its next fueling. 

Plug Power's Gen Drive hydrogen fuel cell was created as an alternative power source for equipment handling industrial-grade materials. According to the Gen Drive power specs, a total of 156 operating hours can be returned by switching to a hydrogen fuel cell. The BMW South Carolina plant produces 300,000 cars a year and expects to produce 450,000 cars by 2016 after a $1 billion expansion for the factory. The forklift operating fleet would become the largest in the world.

BMW first drew on renewable energy to drive its work force vehicles in August 2015. As cited by the U.S. Department of Energy, BMW partnered with Ameresco Gas Technology Institute and the South Carolina Research Authority to utilized methane gas from a local landfill to create hydrogen on site. Switching from lead acid batteries keeps BMW from losing money on waste disposal costs, as the Gen Drive cells never require changing.

Hydrogen fuel on the rise
Hydrogen fuel cells are being used in the development of delivery drones for projects like Amazon's Prime Air, according to Engadget. Battery life for the fuel cells allows drones to travel for up to two hours instead of a previous maximum travel time of 20 minutes. The refueling process would make drones available for another flight within two minutes instead of the current wait time of up to two hours. 

Portable hydrogen batteries are available in England. According to Forbes, they are used to recharge cell phones and other mobile electronics while on the go. As an alternative to the electric car, hydrogen fuel-powered vehicles are already on the road in London. As reported by Motley Fool, investment pledges for hydrogen fueling stations reached $100 million in California. The state hopes to build 100 stations by 2020.

More information on hydrogen power can be found on PennEnergy's research area.

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