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Want better EV range? Hitch it to a fuel cell

Startup Oorja Protonics has developed a methanol fuel cell to give battery-powered forklifts a lift and it's planning to apply the same hybrid approach in fleet vehicles.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
2 min read
Oorja Protonics' fuel cell power packs attach to a battery-powered forklift to provide energy to the batteries and extend their operating time. Oorja Protonics

Startup Oorja Protonics has dodged some of the traditional barriers to fuel cell vehicles, at least with forklifts. In the future, its hybrid approach could be used on cars and trucks, too.

The Fremont, Calif.-based company is in the process of raising funding from corporate partners to ramp up production of its product. The venture-backed company is also profitable, something that few other fuel cell companies can claim.

Rather than use hydrogen as a fuel, Oorja Protonics converts the liquid fuel methanol into electricity in fuel cells. And its onboard fuel cells are designed only to provide a trickle charge to forklifts' batteries, rather than power the vehicle on their own.

The company has sold about 500 power packs at 12 sites at a price that offers a payback between several months to under three years, said CEO Sanjiv Malhotra. Rather than forcing workers to recharge batteries a few times a day, the methanol fuel cells, which are about the size of two desktop computers, allow operators to go for 14 to 16 hours. The company also provides methanol refueling pumps to warehouses, which are similar to gasoline filling stations.

"Fuel cells are very good for steady power. We have a hybrid approach where the battery provides the peak power requirements and the fuel cell can be a steady energy supply on board," Malhotra said. The company was able to achieve a jump in efficiency compared to other methanol fuel cells by improving the catalyst and membrane technology, he said.

Using the OorjaPac fuel cell is less polluting than charging batteries from the grid and has operational benefits, such as longer battery life and less time spent recharging batteries, he said. More stringent laws are making propane-run forklifts less common indoors, he added.

The company is now in discussions to create a "range extender" for electric vehicles that will lower the unit costs of its fuel cells, Malhotra said. Using the same hybrid approach, the methanol fuel cell will provide energy to ensure that batteries have sufficient charge to run. The Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma are two electric vehicles that use a gasoline generator to sustain battery charge.

One of the perennial challenges of fuel cells is the lack of infrastructure for distributing fuels. For forklift applications, there are companies that can refill Oorja's fueling stations with methanol. In the auto market, Malhotra envisions that its fuel cell battery-powered vehicle would appeal to fleet operators, such as airport operators, willing to invest in on-site filling stations.

There are other technical approaches to using fuel cells as a generator or EV range extender. Researchers at the University of Maryland are developing vehicle fuel cells that can convert traditional fuels, such as gasoline or natural gas, into hydrogen to produce electricity for a battery.