How Fuel Cells Will Power Robotics to a Stronger Supply Chain
July 26, 2019      

With the market for autonomous mobile robots skyrocketing, and automation rapidly transforming the global supply chain, the time is long overdue for a fresh look at the sustainable energy solutions that will power the robot economy of tomorrow. Hydrogen fuel cells have attained prominence, in particular this year, capturing unprecedented attention and investment from the biggest economies in the world. While much of the fuel cell conversation has centered on policy proposals for the transportation sector, this versatile technology has the potential and political backing to improve mobile industrial robotics at every step of the supply chain.

Fuel cells in the supply chain

Hydrogen fuel cells are an incredibly versatile technology with wide-ranging applications, and much of that potential will be realized by electric mobile robots and vehicles in the global supply chain. In fact, it’s already happening. Fuel cells have found a robust and commercially-viable market in the material handling industry, with more than 25,000 hydrogen fuel cell forklifts currently deployed throughout the U.S. in warehouses, stores, and manufacturing facilities. They’re also making their way into fleet trucking, where they’re quickly proving their superiority to battery-powered solutions in electric vehicle (EV) use cases requiring extended runtimes.

fuel cell forklift article plug power

Fuel cells are already finding their ways into autonomous and semi-autonomous forklifts.

Much like the global EV market, electric mobile robotics has long been dominated by battery power. Compared to the hydrogen fuel cells of today, battery technology is relatively inexpensive, widely available, and offers some clear benefits in terms of short-range applications. However, fuel cells win out over batteries across just about every other metric, and recent scientific developments have only served to shore up those advantages. Let’s look at a few examples:

Energy-to-Weight Ratio

The amount of power a robot requires for locomotion is directly proportional to its weight, and the weight of the power source itself has long been a hugely limiting factor in mobile robot design. Batteries must be made larger (and heavier) or smaller relative to their power output — that’s why AA batteries are bigger than AAA batteries — but fuel cells remain comparatively fixed in size across power ranges. At higher power ranges, a hydrogen fuel cell can store as much as 236 times more energy per kilogram than a lithium-ion battery, and the latest models are only widening the gap. This makes them the superior choice in energy intensive applications like manufacturing and warehousing, which require high asset utilization and extended runtimes. But that’s just the beginning. With their light weight and high power density, fuel cells could be the key to unlocking extended flight times for drones, further opening the door to the automated last-mile delivery systems of the future.

Reliability in harsh conditions

Batteries are notoriously sensitive to the effects of extreme temperatures, and see their performance drop significantly in hot and cold weather conditions. Fuel cells, by contrast, are very reliable in those environments and offer full power throughout a shift. That’s why food and beverage brands are increasingly turning to fuel cell solutions to power material handling operations in refrigerated warehouses and distribution centers. Recent advances have improved fuel cell performance in hot and cold temperatures even further, which could allow for the introduction of mobile robots to foundries and other extreme industrial environments.

Quick Refueling

When today’s electric industrial robots have depleted their batteries, it usually takes a full night of continuous charging to bring them back to capacity. This downtime means hours of lost productivity for the automated factory or warehouse. However, when a fuel cell-powered robot runs out of juice, replenishing its hydrogen supply takes just a few minutes. Although most refueling stations require a human to handle the pump, that extra step won’t be necessary for long. Last fall, the Department of Energy granted $2 million for a study of autonomous hydrogen gas fueling stations. This innovation could pave the way for the introduction of mobile robots that can work 24/7 with only a few minutes of downtime per day, and eventually for autonomous vehicles that can stay on the road for months at a time without human intervention.

These are just a few of the advantages that fuel cells offer over battery technology in mobile industrial robotics. Each day, researchers around the world make further advances in fuel cell technology. The pace of innovation in the fuel cell market will only increase now that some of the world’s leading economies (including the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China) are actively investing in its development. The 2020s are quickly shaping up to be the decade of the hydrogen fuel cell. The only question that remains is whether today’s robotics and business leaders will be ahead of the curve, or left in the dust.

Andy Marsh Plug Power fuel cell articleAbout the author: Andy Marsh is president and CEO of Plug Power, which is bringing the hydrogen fuel cell market from concept to commercialization as the world moves forward towards electrification. He can be reached via LinkedIn.