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Refrigerated trucks to keep their cool with fuel cell technology

Grocery merchants in Texas, California and New York will soon have ice cream, frozen foods and fresh produce delivered by tractor trailers whose refrigeration units are powered by fuel cells, a clean technology that makes energy silently and with dramatically reduced emissions.
Refrigerated trucks to keep their cool with fuel cell technology
The fuel cells will do the work normally done by a small diesel engine, which keeps the cargo at the proper temperature while the trucks are making deliveries. Each of the four trucks will still be equipped with a main diesel engine that actually powers the truck.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which is overseeing the project, believe this will be the first time that refrigerated trucks making deliveries have been equipped with a fuel cell -- a device that creates electricity by driving chemical reactions using hydrogen and air. The only by-products are heat and water.

'This is a great application for a fuel cell,' said Kriston Brooks, the PNNL researcher leading the project. 'A trailer refrigeration unit traditionally is powered by a small diesel engine or electric motor that drives compressors to provide cooling to the cargo. A fuel cell can potentially provide a clean, quiet and efficient alternative by powering the electric motor.'

Two fuel cell manufacturers, Massachusetts-based Nuvera and Albany-based Plug Power will each receive $650,000 from DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The companies will provide matching funds and labor of their own. A PNNL team led by Brooks will oversee and evaluate the two-year program.

Industry officials estimate that approximately 300,000 refrigerated trucks with auxiliary power units are on the road in the United States. By replacing the small diesel engines with the more efficient fuel cell, users will see fuel savings of approximately 10 gallons a day per unit, in addition to reduced emission of pollutants and significantly quieter operation.

Fuel cells are becoming more common in the US as energy sources in buildings and in vehicles such as buses. While the devices are generally more expensive than traditional forms of energy generation, many scientists and product developers expect that as they become more widely adopted and production levels increase, their cost will come down, similar to what has happened to products like cell phones.

In one project, Nuvera will work with Thermo King, a manufacturer of transport temperature control systems for a variety of mobile applications, to develop the refrigeration unit to keep the truck cool using Nuvera's Orion fuel cell stack. That truck will make deliveries for a Sysco food distribution facility in Riverside, California, and for a San Antonio, Texas, food distribution center for the H-E-B grocery store chain.

In the other projects, Plug Power will work with Carrier Transicold and Air Products to equip trucks making deliveries for a Sysco food distribution facility on Long Island. The trucks will be equipped with Plug Power's GenDrive fuel cell product.

Each fuel-cell powered refrigerated trailer will run for at least 400 hours at each demonstration site, delivering goods from the distribution centers to stores or other outlets.

A spokesman for Nuvera said that plans for bringing a TRU fuel cell product into Europe are being considered.

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