Garbage In, Power Out: South Carolina BMW Plant Demonstrates Landfill Gas to Hydrogen Fuel

on August 28, 2015 at 5:00 PM
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The plant BMW plant in Greer, South Carolina is home to the world’s largest fleet of fuel cell forklifts. | Photo courtesy of BMW Manufacturing.

A BMW manufacturing plant in Greer, South Carolina, demonstrated that fuel cells can be powered by fuel from a unique source: Garbage.

In a first-of-its-kind demonstration, the Energy Department, BMW and project partners Ameresco, Gas Technology Institute and the South Carolina Research Authority powered some of the facility’s fuel cell forklifts with hydrogen produced on-site from biomethane gas at a nearby landfill.

In order to achieve this, project researchers and engineers had to overcome two main obstacles. The first challenge involved converting the biomethane gas into hydrogen. This required the development and testing of multiple tanks with catalysts for removing contaminants. The second was purifying the hydrogen enough so it could be used in fuel cells. To do this, the project team had to purge the gas stream of all non-hydrogen molecules, including nitrogen.

Fuel cell forklifts have several advantages compared to standard forklifts that use lead-acid batteries. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can be rapidly refueled in less than three minutes, boosting productivity by eliminating the time and cost associated with battery change-outs and charging that can take up to several hours. Fuel-cell-powered lift trucks can reduce labor cost of refueling and recharging by up to 80 percent and require 75 percent less space as compared to battery recharging equipment. Also, fuel cells provide consistent power throughout work shifts, unlike battery-powered forklifts, which may experience power reductions during a shift.

The fuel cell forklifts are vital to the day-to-day operations of the BMW plant, which manufactures 300,000 cars a year and supports about 8,800 jobs in South Carolina. BMW recently announced a $1 billion expansion plan for this facility that will boost production up to 450,000 cars — including the new BMW X7 model — by 2016 and make it the company’s largest plant in the world.

Hydrogen fuel cells are one of many technologies the Energy Department supports that generate clean, reliable power and help create a more sustainable planet for future generations. Learn more about how hydrogen and fuel cells work and what the Energy Department is doing to advance these technologies.