The future of renewable energy for materials handling

Siemens’ £160m wind turbine factory in Hull has brought significant investment in the wind energy sector to the region. Does it signal the beginning of the end for fossil fuels? And what does it mean for the logistics industry?

It is now completely ordinary to see panels on your neighbours’ roof soaking up solar energy, just as we are getting used to looking out to sea and seeing a wind farm on the horizon. This is likely to be due, in part, to high profile figures making pledges to use more renewable energy sources and encouraging the population to follow suit.

Many big brands have recently been promising that by 2025, 100% of purchased electricity will come from renewable sources. Giant beer producer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has said that in eight years your cold Budweiser, Stella Artois or Corona will be made with renewable energy, such as wind or solar power.

By doing so they will reduce their carbon footprint by 30% – equivalent to removing 500,000 cars from the road! Coca Cola and IKEA are among the other companies pledging to go 100% renewable.

Hydrogen fuel cells

While businesses across the globe are being urged to reduce their usage of fossil fuels and look for alternative ways of using energy, the closest the materials handling industry has come to a green source of energy is the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power forklifts.

It was recently announced that South Africa are to make more hydrogen fuel cell forklifts in a bid to use clean energy, but although there’s a lot of hydrogen on the surface of the planet, most of it exists in chemical compounds such as crude oil and water. This means that in order to produce enough to power the world’s vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells need to be produced industrially, a process that means as much as 95% of hydrogen would be produced by burning fossil fuels. Still, there a number of not-so-popular methods that could be the future of renewable energy to help power forklifts as well as the rest of the globe.

Best Foot Forward

Piezoelectricity is a method of producing energy from pressure. Pioneering companies such as PaveGen are using this concept in floor tiles, so that people walking around or dancing produce enough electricity to run the shopping centre or nightclub they are in. Each PaveGen floor tile is equipped with a wireless API that transmits real-time movement data analytics, whilst directly producing power when and where it is needed. As pedestrians walk across the system, the weight from their footsteps causes generators to vertically displace, resulting in the radial motion creating energy through electro-magnetic induction. A nightclub in Rotterdam is making use of this technology too, but electric dance moves don’t come cheap, the club’s 270-square-foot floor cost around $257,000!

Body Heat

Stockholm’s Central Station is making use of those sweaty rush hours and conserving body heat to warm an office block not far from the station. The Central Station’s ventilation system is fitted with heat exchangers, allowing the excess body heat to be converted to hot water before being pushed into the building’s heating system. As well as being a green renewable energy source, the system has lowered the energy bill by as much as 25% for the office block.

Nevertheless, it has been said that the system works well in Sweden due to their cold winters, and the cost and benefits can depend on the climate as well as the price of energy.

Transistor Breakthough

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have recently discovered a new transistor design that could mean ultra-low power applications such as wearable devices and implantable electronics no longer need to be powered by batteries.

The new design uses a similar method to a computer in sleep mode, using a tiny ‘leak’of electrical current to function. Compared to water dripping from a faulty tap, the current is formed from contact between the metal and semiconducting components of a transistor, a characteristic that engineers usually try to avoid. Although transistors have had this ability for years, this is the first time the current has been effectively captured and used practically.

Drawing energy from an AA battery based on this design, it has been said, would make it last for a billion years.

Methane Cow Backpacks

According to the UN, 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases is down to agriculture, and cattle are a big contributor to this number. Methane is 23 times more harmful to the environment than CO2, and one cow releases 70 to 120 kgs of methane on average per year. With 1.5 billion of them around the globe, that’s a lot of harmful greenhouse gas. Researchers in Argentina have developed a backpack that collects the cow methane, purifying and compressing it for use in generating electricity.

Try not to get too excited though, while it might sound like ‘cowpower’ is the newest form of renewable energy, it’s still just in the concept stage.

What it all means for MHE…

The piezoelectricity and body heat concepts may not be ideal to power materials handling equipment, but if busy facilities started to harvest the energy from pressure and warmth produced by the employees, it’s possible businesses could be saving money while protecting the planet from green-house gases in the future.

It is somewhat unlikely we’ll see the next generation of forklift trucks being powered by tiny electrical current leaks or cow emissions. What we can say is that the direction of travel appears to be well established, if not for the planet’s sake, then for cost, health and security of energy supply reasons. What’s more the renewable energy activities in Hull together with these new discoveries pave the way for new research projects that might one day provide a green source of energy powerful enough to fuel forklifts and distribution centres worldwide. In the meantime, Windsor Hull can offer advice on equipment with low emissions and other energy-saving benefits.

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