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Toro partners with ATK to develop fuel cell-powered utility vehicles

Two Twin Cities-based companies are working to develop fuel cell-powered utility vehicles for potential civilian and military applications.

Two Twin Cities-based companies are partnering to develop fuel cell-powered utility vehicles for potential use in both civilian and military applications.

Toro Co. (NYSE: TTC), the Bloomington-based turf and landscape maintenance equipment manufacturer, announced recently that it was chosen by Minneapolis-based defense contractor ATK (NYSE:ATK) to help design and build hydrogen-powered utility vehicles as part of an alternative-fuels demonstration project.

The project, the companies’ firs joint effort, is part of ATK’s $860,000 contract with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division to coordinate hydrogen fuel storage development for the U.S. Department of Energy. ATK is integrating its own fuel-cell power system and solid-hydrogen storage system onto modified hydrogen-powered Toro vehicles. Toro is also providing engineering support.

ATK, with $4.5 billion in revenue last year, has a long history in developing solid-hydrogen fuel systems for rockets and space vehicles. Toro, with $1.5 billion in revenue, has been exploring alternative-fuel vehicles since 1998 and introduced its first fuel cell-powered mower in 2004, according to Jack Gust, R&D chief engineer at the company’s center for advanced turf technology.

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Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water vapor. While a lightweight and clean power source, they are more expensive to operate than battery or hybrid dies-l fuel cell power systems for land-based vehicles.

While the cost of fuel cells has improved dramatically from $600,000/kilowatt during the era of the lunar space exploration, today, the most widely deployed fuel cells cost about $4,500 per kilowatt, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  By contrast, a diesel generator costs $800 to $1,500 per kilowatt, and a natural gas turbine can be $400 per kilowatt or less.

Still too expensive for automobiles, Gust said that the fuel cell Toro uses costs about $1,500 per kilowatt and is approaching economical use for  utility vehicles, such as forklifts and maintenance vehicles, which require much less power than automobiles.  “At around $400 per kilowatt, we could make a go of it.”

Because the fuel cells need to be recharged each evening, the technology lends itself to fleet operations, such as warehouse and maintenance vehicles that return to a central location at the end of the day, Gust explained.

Toro recently completed a three-year demonstration project with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which tested three prototype hydrogen-powered Toro utility vehicles. That project caught the attention of ATK’s Center for Energy and Aerospace Innovation), based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., which is leading the fuel cell contract.

The hydrogen-powered utility vehicles  are scheduled for delivery this fall to the Defense Logistics Agency for a 12-month operational demonstration to better understand the performance, durability and sustainability of the hydrogen fuel-cell system.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires the U.S. Department of Defense to reduce oil consumption rates by 20 percent before the end of 2015 and establishes a hydrogen and fuel cell program with a goal of producing commercial fuel-cell vehicles and developing hydrogen infrastructure by 2020.