100% hydrogen-powered logistics: a first for Europe!


All-hydrogen logistics may already be all the rage in the USA and Canada, but it is also starting to gain traction in Europe with the first large-scale projects. As an example, Prelocentre – which provides a fruit and vegetable logistics service for the Grand Frais chain in France – uses hydrogen to run all goods handling devices in Prelocentre, its warehouse in Saint-Cyr-en-Val near Orléans. A European first!

In a suburb of Lyon, Philippe Giroux makes the most of a quiet moment to read the trade press. An article catches his attention: more and more warehouses in the USA and Canada are using forklift trucks that run on hydrogen. When used in a fuel cell, hydrogen generates clean energy as it combines with air to produce electricity, and water is the only waste emission. Hydrogen can be produced using natural gas – biogas or other – as well as by water electrolysis. As CEO of Prelocentre, the exclusive logistics service provider for the French distributor Grand Frais, Philippe Giroux is very interested!

A new logistics center

The construction of the Prelocentre logistics center near Orléans was an ideal opportunity to roll out a new system using forklift trucks powered by hydrogen. Right from the planning stage, the company incorporated adaptations to its warehouse in order to run a fleet of forklifts fitted with fuel cells and accommodate the related hydrogen infrastructure. Hydrogen-powered forklifts are no more complicated to operate than battery-powered ones: the batteries in standard electric forklifts are simply replaced with compact fuel cells. Air Liquide is responsible for supplying and maintaining the stock of high pressure hydrogen (450 bar) outside the building and connecting it to the hydrogen station inside the warehouse. The station supplies hydrogen to 46 forklifts, at a pressure of 350 bar. This project is co-financed by the European FCHJU (Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking) Public-Private Partnership as part of the HyLIFT-Europe project.

Philippe Giroux is confident of success with his project: “I wanted to innovate, but above all, I wanted our new logistics center to benefit from all the advantages of hydrogen energy. Air Liquide has given me that opportunity!”

Full of advantages

Hydrogen has many advantages over electricity, offering economic, practical, environmental and technological benefits:

  • Switching to hydrogen energy in a new warehouse makes sense because it eliminates the need for a costly room to store and recharge electric batteries. This frees up valuable warehouse space as well as saving money!
  • With hydrogen, several charging stations can be installed at strategic locations in the warehouse, whereas there would be one centralized hub for charging electrical forklifts. Multiple hydrogen charging points limit travel for forklifts, thereby boosting productivity.
  • Employees’ work is less laborious and there is less risk of accidents because they no longer have to carry the forklifts’ heavy electrical batteries, which weigh several hundred kilos each. The forklifts can be recharged with hydrogen in just three minutes and then they are good to go. This saves precious time every day!
  • Hydrogen technology allows forklifts to remain in use non-stop. Long stoppages for recharging are no longer necessary. Even better: the performance of fuel cell forklifts is constant throughout use, until the hydrogen runs out. Electrical batteries lose power as the charge runs down.
  • And finally, the lifespan of a fuel cell is longer: around 10 years, compared with 5 to 6 years for an electrical battery.

What’s next?

Prelocentre has only just opened in Saint-Cyr-en-Val, and already it has plans for expansion. The warehouse will soon have more fuel cell forklifts. A second building for Grand Frais is to be constructed nearby, also equipped with fuel cell forklifts. Other major distributors have been impressed by the Prelocentre scheme and are taking a close interest in hydrogen technology for their own logistic centers. One in particular plans to centralize all its former warehouses in one huge logistics hub. These chains have met Air Liquide in order to discuss their projects.

What if all logistics sites in the future used forklifts whose only waste emission was water vapor? The idea is gaining momentum; projects are popping up everywhere and Air Liquide is fully mobilized.

3 questions for… Philippe Giroux, Prelocentre CEO

Can you describe Prelocentre’s business in a few words?

Our logistics center opened in September 2015, with 110 employees, in an industrial zone south of Orléans. Our building devotes 9,000 m2 to the storage of fruit and vegetables at 10°C and 1,000 m2 to refrigerated storage of seafood at 4°C. We work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to deliver 70,000 tons of fruit and vegetables to the 64 Grand Frais stores in the west of France.

What made you choose fuel cell forklifts for this warehouse?

We are the logistics service provider for Grand Frais, a well-known specialist in the distribution of chilled and local produce in France. As a partner, I wanted my company to be aligned with our customer’s environmental policy. So when we were setting up a new warehouse, I took the opportunity to make the building eco-friendly. Using hydrogen energy is one part of that. It has many advantages: not only is it sustainable, it’s also competitive and flexible. We don’t need a charging room, so that’s 400 m2 that we can use for storage. On top of that, we eliminate the risks associated with changing batteries, which is a great relief for our material handlers. Fuel cells also allow us to use our forklifts all day, non-stop. And above all, our personnel are proud to work in the first 100% hydrogen logistics site in Europe! This is also a selling point for Grand Frais.

Why did you choose Air Liquide as the supplier for your hydrogen recharging stations?

I contacted HyPulsion, which was a Joint-Venture between Axane (Air Liquide entity) and Plug Power2 at the time, after reading an article about a practice that’s common in the US and could save my company money: hydrogen in logistics. Our partnership with Air Liquide is going great, my contacts are highly competent and know our business well. Hydrogen technology is easy to adopt, with operators only needing a short training session. Air Liquide even allowed me to join the European HyLift program, and I’m proud to be part of a Europe-wide project.