Could hydrogen GPUs become more popular than electric?

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol will be testing the world’s first fully operational OEM hydrogen ground power unit this summer.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is one of the most innovative airports in Europe so it’s no surprise to learn the airport is at the centre of a significant EU sustainability project involving the development of hydrogen GPUs.

The testing of fully operational hydrogen fuel cell GPUs has taken a step forward thanks to a dynamic partnership between Schiphol and OEM GPU manufacturer Dynell, along with the fuel cell manufacturer Zepp.solutions  and KES B.V. part of TCR.

It is fully supported by the Dutch Government and is being funded as part of the €25 million TULIPS ‒ Green Airports Project, a consortium of companies facilitating the transition to low-carbon mobility and sustainability at airports.

Schiphol approached Dynell, a leading GPU manufacturer, to work alongside Zepp.solutions to produce a solid state converter using a hydrogen fuel cell system instead of a battery-powered equivalent and is now ready for its first round of tests.

It will be tested at Schiphol before moving to Cyprus and Torino airports for further tests, then to Schiphol for another six months of field testing.

For Dynell it’s an exciting development for the business which only started five years ago and has experienced high demand for its battery and diesel GPUs worldwide.

The company is growing so much it is tripling its current capacity by adding another 3,700 square metres to its existing facility in in Mistelback near Wels, Austria. Despite the challenge of long lead times on certain products the outlook for 2024 looks very promising for Dynell and the partnership with Schiphol adds a further string to its bow.

“We, at Dynell, are not looking at this as a one-time shot. This is something we believe in, and of course, we realise in the future our job will be convincing other airports except Schiphol which already believes in this technology,” said Michael Brandstötter, Head of Sales and Marketing, at Dynell. “Schiphol is the most innovative airport in Europe, in my point of view, or maybe the whole world, and that's how we see ourselves as well. We have a vision and want to be seen as the innovative leader for manufacturing GPUs.”


An artist’s impression of Dynell’s premises

Schiphol saw a gap in the market and wanted to explore the potential of having hydrogen GPUs on the ramp after it experienced limitations with battery GPUs for widebody applications.

“We saw the limitations of eGPUs from a widebody perspective but also from a remote location perspective. You don't have the capacity to charge them quickly or easily, even at Schiphol where it has sufficient charging equipment and [access to the] electricity grid, there are still some places where the grid is not there,” said Oscar Maan, Innovations Manager, at Schiphol Airport.

"You need a lot of power for a longer period of time, and the capacity of batteries and the capacity of the grid is limited, so we thought if we can use a hydrogen GPU with bare capacity that can just keep on going when you refuel it, it can keep running all the time."

The impressive functionality of a hydrogen GPU is that it can be refuelled within minutes as against waiting for hours to charge a battery-operated GPU. On the ramp where quick turnarounds mean more revenue opportunities it’s a development that will no doubt make the industry sit up and take notice in due course.

Brandstötter said: "If you want to recharge a battery GPU, it takes you at least three to four hours, more than half a night to recharge, but if you want to refuel a hydrogen GPU, we still need to test it, but my assumption is that it would take a maximum of three to five minutes or even faster and then you're done. If you then calculate the cost-savings that's a lot of money. Also, you don't need to tow the hydrogen GPU back to a certain point, which involves a tug and an operator, the refuelling trucks come to the unit on the field."

In terms of power capacity of a hydrogen GPU, Brandstötter, explained there is around 350 kWh of usable energy that allows output power of up to 90 kVA.

“So, for a narrowbody, GPU Code C, it has more than double the capacity of a battery GPU,” he said. “The other big advantage of hydrogen is the unit is not doubling in size, only on the solid state converter side to get to 180 kVA and using bigger tanks. In our opinion, it certainly makes it a very interesting technology in the future for widebodies, and economically wise, it's getting interesting as well for a widebody application.”

Maan added by putting in two of the hydrogen units next to each other it generates 700 kWh, which is more than enough to do a full handling, even two handlings with just a single charge of hydrogen.

“If you have an airport without access to the grid then hydrogen is a really good alternative because you don't need the infrastructure because it's all mobile, the GPU can be fuelled just by using a hydrogen truck,” he continued.  

Given the existing apprehension of the market towards having hydrogen on the apron near aircraft, questions remain about how the transportation and production of green hydrogen will work in reality.

To this Maan responded: “Maybe we will disperse the gaseous hydrogen into a smaller type of vehicle, which will then drive around the airport and fuel up all the different hydrogen equipment or we will have a local storage of hydrogen, which disperses from there, but when you have a small refuelling truck that you can drive towards the GPU, I think that’s really convenient.”

“We want 100% green hydrogen and know that's not yet easy to come by, but we view it like a chicken and egg situation, we thought we're going to first check if this equipment is actually fit for purpose and if it is fit for purpose, then we can think about the whole supply chain, and the same actually goes for the hydrogen tow tractor we’re developing with another OEM manufacturer.”

Maan said Schiphol was learning from other companies in this space, like those involved in a project with Port of Amsterdam which is installing a 500 MW electrolyser.

“Everybody's demanding hydrogen, but a lot of that demand still exists on paper. What we are doing, we're demanding real hydrogen, so it needs to be at the airport at the right time at the right amount. Today it's only one hydrogen GPU, but at the end of this year, it will also be for a hydrogen tow tractor and probably a big 200 kWh hydrogen generator or maybe even a 1.2 MW generator that we're going to test. So you see, we’re going to need quite some hydrogen.”

To the naysayers regarding the development of hydrogen GPUs, he added: “We have a saying in Dutch that ‘success has many followers’… once hydrogen is a success am sure everybody will jump on it and want to be a part of it. You have to remember that it is one thing to design and to build the technology, quite another to get it accepted and implemented and to comply with the so-called regulations, which is more challenging and something we’ve already experienced and overcome with electric GPUs. We had that equipment ready long before it was widely accepted on the ramp, the same thing will happen with hydrogen GPUs.”

Trend still towards electric
Conversely TLD says fully operational hydrogen GPUs on the ramp are still quite a way off yet with the price of hydrogen costing at least three times the price of battery-operated GPUs.

“The hydrogen-powered GSE is still not really developing. We are still facing some reluctance from customers to have hydrogen tanks close to the aircraft,” said Sebastien Fabre, COO of the TLD Windsor facility in Connecticut.

“Being able to use hydrogen-powered GPUs will be mainly driven by our customers and we are ready for it. Nevertheless, so far, the market trend seems to be more focused on Li-Ion (Lithium-Ion) technology rather than hydrogen-powered units.

“Undoubtedly, the GSE world is becoming more and more electric, and this started with other types of equipment such as baggage tractors and beltloaders. Then, the continuous trend of being more electric is going forward, and like everywhere else in the world, the lack of charging points is an issue in Europe, in the US and less so in China.”

But Fabre says that the actual leading region for adopting eGPUs will be Europe. “The trend is driven by the fact that by law, it won’t be possible to use diesel GPUs in the next four years or so. Our customers have no other choice but to switch their old diesel units to electrical GPUs. In the US, legacy airlines are still mainly using diesel GPUs and are still ordering those, but we can see a switch for private aviation and MROs switching to electric.”

The development of TLD’s smart solutions is well accepted by the market, with hundreds of TLD Power-409 GPUs in service globally. The TLD Power-409/Start-180 was chosen as 2024 GSE Product Leader of the Year.

“It is a solution which is versatile and capable of providing multiple solutions with the same equipment, the ‘Swiss army knife of GSE,’ power-bank/onboard charger/400 Hz.”

Another reason TLD is pushing for electrification as it will reduce the complexity of the entire supply chain, allowing them to have a single driveline. “All the countries or regions are not working on the same standard, we are running with four standards on GPU (T3, T4F, GB4 and ST5). As a manufacturer, this leads to a more complex supply chain and this also leads to more engineering efforts to sustain the products.”

The Oshkosh AeroTech AmpCart H2 at Hawthorne Airport in Los Angeles

Oshkosh AeroTech has taken a different approach to the grid and hydrogen issues says Todd Tanner, Oshkosh AeroTech Director of Business Development, with the introduction of the AmpTek and AmpCart supporting eGSE.

“We recognise there is a tremendous push towards electrification, that there are limitations to grid infrastructure, that battery powered eGSE is readily available today, and that there is a bright future for hydrogen going forward. We have developed products and partners that effectively bring together these emerging trends,” he said.

 “Our customers are eager to move to eGSE and Oshkosh AeroTech is ready to support that migration. We have greatly expanded our lithium-ion powered eGSE product family. This was a first step. As a second step, we have introduced products that support eGSE on the ramp, even when challenged by limited electrical grid infrastructure.

“Our AmpTek device takes advantage of excess power routinely found at the gate and intelligently shares that power with eGSE battery chargers located nearby. Another new addition is our AmpCart. This is a mobile, battery-charging platform that can be used anywhere on the ramp even locations where there is no grid power available.

“The original version was diesel powered that supported numerous eGSE products, even remotely. As a third step, we have introduced a hydrogen powered variant of our AmpCart. In partnership with Universal Hydrogen, we have developed a hydrogen powered AmpCart for charging eGSE and we have a novel, safe, and efficient means for transporting and supporting hydrogen consumption on the ramp.” 

Tanner summarises: “At Oshkosh AeroTech we embrace the eGSE movement, have developed products that effectively bridge the gap between eGSE needs and available grid infrastructure, and have aggressively developed hydrogen-powered products supporting eGSE on the ramp.  Our vision is to the future, but is rooted in the realities of the present.”

Poul Elvstrøm, Vice President and General Manager at ITW GSE, says hydrogen is an interesting area that the company has also looked into earlier.

“However, there are still so many limitations and unresolved issues regarding the infrastructure that we simply do not see a viable business case at this point. We will be following the market curiously, but the way we work is not only about developing the newest technology available. Instead we focus on Customer-Back Innovation just like we did with the 7400 eGPU back in 2017 where we were the first to introduce a battery-driven eGPU to the market,” he said.

Elvstrøm expects 2024 to be another record year for the company, with expected growth to be at around 10% per annum. He says it is well positioned to grow with the market with its niche portfolio of products, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region where it will have the fastest growth of passengers, driven by China and India.

“We are still at 1,500 and 1,600 ground power units per annum that will grow in line with the market,” he added.

The latest innovation that ITW GSE has launched is the Air Coil that creates perfect distribution of cold air to the aircraft, complementing the EcoGate system that was introduced last year.

This article was published in the April 2024 issue of Ground Handling International, click here to access the digital edition and click here to subscribe.

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