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Fuel Cells for Refrigerated Trucks Under Development

Ice cubes (Liz West/Flickr)A project combining the efforts of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)  in Richland, Washington with two fuel cell manufacturers is developing fuel cells to power the refrigeration units in refigerated trucks. The companies — Nuvera Fuel Cells in Billerica,, Massachusetts and Plug Power Inc. in Latham, New York — each received a $650,000 matching contract with the Department of Energy to build the fuel cells.

Fuel cells crack hydrogen gas into positive ions and negatively-charged electrons that are separated by polymer membrane, causing the electrons to travel along an external circuit, creating an electric current. The electrons and positively-charged hydrogen ions combine with oxygen from the air to form water, which is emitted from the fuel cell.

Kriston Brooks, PNNL’s lead researcher on the project notes that refrigerated trailers normally have separate diesel engines or electric motors to drive compressors for refrigeration. PNNL cites industry figures estimating that some 300,000 refrigerated trucks with auxiliary power units are now on the road in the U.S., and each truck with a fuel cell can save an average of 10 gallons of fuel per day for each unit.

The fuel cell companies are partnering with manufacturers of truck refrigeration units to build demonstration fuel cells for units in trucks making day-to-day deliveries in American cities. The trucks’ main power will still come from diesel fuel. Nuvera fuel cellls will power units made by Thermo King in trucks making deliveries for food distributor Sysco Corp. in Riverside, California and grocery retailer H-E-B in San Antonio.

Plug Power is working with refrigeration unit makers Carrier and Air Products. Their units will operate in trucks making deliveries from a Sysco Corp. distribution center on Long Island, New York. The Sysco and H-E-B facilities already use fuel cells for some of their forklifts, thus they have the infrastructure in place to generate hydrogen from natural gas for the fuel cells.

Under the two-year contracts, each company is required to provide matching funds and labor. Brooks and his team at PNNL, a division of Department of Energy, is managing the project and will conduct an evaluation at its close.

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Photo: Liz West/Flickr

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