Fueling GSE With Fuel Cells

With a $2.5 million DOE grant, one company already successful within the material handling industry, attempts to power ground support equipment with hydrogen fuel cells.

Temperatures, however, shouldn’t be too much of a factor for the FedEx GSE project since 10 of the tractors will be stationed in Memphis, TN and the remaining five will be used in Oakland, CA. Still, Petrecky says the fuel cells will need to be “ruggedized” to take into account rain, wind and anything else Mother Nature might send out on the ramp in Tennessee and California.

The promise of using hydrogen fuel cells to power GSE has been told in these pages before, and such articles always start out, well, promising. The Plug Power initiative, however, has two advantages that could make this source of power play out.


Hydrogen has about three times more “energy content” by weight than gasoline, which is a good thing. But hydrogen, at least liquid hydrogen, has four times less energy content than gasoline, which is a bad thing.

What that has typically meant is vast storage for hydrogen on site, which few want, or an expensive alternative that has even fewer takers at least for our on-the-go, 24/7 industry

“Half of the cost of hydrogen is typically in its transportation,” Petrecky adds.

Enter another new name to most Ground Support Worldwide readers.

“The whole viability of converting to hydrogen fuel cells hinges on the availability of hydrogen at a reasonable cost,” says Gus Block, director of marketing and government affairs for Nuvera, based in Billerica, MA, and also a partner with Plug Power in the FedEx GSE project.

Nuvera has been focusing on that availability issue since its start in 2000, particularly at relatively low-use sites. The company’s PowerTap, a reformer that turns natural gas and water into hydrogen will be installed at the two FedEx airports as part of the GSE project.

“Nuvera eliminates the transportation issue,” Patrecky adds. “Natural gas is everywhere.”


By packaging fuel cell replacements with Nuvera’s small-scale, onsite production facilities that use natural gas as its primary feedstock for hydrogen production, the FedEx GSE project takes on a different appearance than other hydrogen power stories.

Rather than huge storage and expensive infrastructure that tags along, Nuvera’s system already takes advantage of much of the natural gas pipelines that already exist.

Nuvera calls its PowerTap an “appliance,” that takes up a very small footprint. The company also has an interesting business model in that users simply enter into a contract with Nuvera – which essentially sees itself as a hydrogen supplier.

“We sell hydrogen by the molecule,” Block adds, “so there is no capital outlay on the part of the end-user.”

There’s also an interesting energy story happening in the United States that Block says has “decoupled” the price of natural gas from the price of oil. Typically, natural gas reserves are found along with oil reserves. That type of natural gas is referred to as “wet gas.” But shale gas, referred to as “dry gas,” has turned the energy markets upside down with natural gas prices reaching lows while the oil prices remain high.

America might as well be known as the Saudi Arabia of dry gas. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States has reserves on the order of 100 times annual consumption rates.

“That’s created a window of opportunity for the increased use of natural gas as a transportation fuel,” Block says.

In the new year ahead, we’ll check in with Plug Power to see what progress they make.

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