Alternative Fuels Being Used to Power Forklifts

Warehouse fleet managers are well aware that electricity, propane, gas and diesel are the fuels that are used to power forklifts. However, they may not be aware that there are alternatives that offer a cleaner environment and maybe some cost savings. For example, solar energy is now being used to charge batteries used to power electric forklifts. Moreover, believe it or not, there are human-powered forklifts for fleet managers who may be more enthusiastic about the reduction of carbon than most forklift fleet managers. Fuel cell technology is evolving and is involved in forklift use as is compressed natural gas and biodiesel. We are all aware of hybrid cars. The technology is trickling down into forklifts.

Solar Power

There are actually examples of companies that use forklifts that have changed their fleets

Solar panels were installed on the roof of Safepac Professional Movers' warehouse to power the electric chargers used to recharge its forklift batteries. (Courtesy:

Solar panels were installed on the roof of Safepac Professional Movers’ warehouse to power the electric chargers used to recharge its forklift batteries.
(Courtesy: Oregon Department of Transportation at

from gas or diesel to battery so that they can use the advantages of solar power.

One such company is Safepac Professional Movers, based in Suffolk, England. The company was using diesel lifts when it approached a Mitsubishi dealer about upgrading it fleet. The company purchased a number of Mitsubishi EDIA lifts on a trial basis.

First, the Mitsubishi electric forklifts impressed the director of Safepac, Nick Peraso. He touted the higher performance of the electric lifts including acceleration, maximum travel, and torque of the machines.

Also conscious about cost, Peraso had solar panels installed on the roof of the company’s warehouse to power the electric charger for the lifts.

He noted that in the summer when there is more daylight, the trucks are plugged in and get a free charge.

Human-Powered Forklift

Perhaps talking a cue from the cartoon show The Flintstones, there are small companies

Human-powered forklifts. (Courtesy:

Human-powered forklifts.

around who have produced human-powered forklifts. Of course, this person-powered machine would not be able to handle heavy items. Still, it is possible to lift and move pallets entirely with human power. For those fleet managers who have vigorously embraced a green method of doing business, this could actually be a great alternative to diesel- or gas-powered forklifts. However, you will have to lower expectations. This lift can elevate items that are about 30kg. The machine moves on pedal power and a crank that is turned by hand raises the bed.

Fuel Cell Technology

The use of fuel cell technology to power forklifts is expanding. The energy is produced

Refueling hydrogen fuel cell powered forklifts takes just a few minutes. (Courtesy: Green Energy Futures at

Refueling hydrogen fuel cell powered forklifts takes just a few minutes.
(Courtesy: Green Energy Futures at

when liquid hydrogen reacts with liquid oxygen in an electrochemical cell.

As early as 2007, the University of Chicago studied fuel cell-powered forklifts. Although the results were mixed, the technology has evolved and now companies like BMW, Coco-Cola, and Wal-Mart are using fuel cell-powered forklifts.

We reported a while back that Toyota is testing hydrogen fuel cell powered forklifts in a joint venture with the Prefectural Government of Kanagawa in Japan. Moreover, we also noted that Toyota was the first forklift manufacturer to develop a fuel cell hybrid system to power forklifts in 2005 and Crown Forklift Manufacturers is making fuel cell forklifts in partnership with Plug Power, Ballard, GrafTech and other fuel cell power pack providers.

Using fuel cell technology is an ideal alternative to other means of powering a forklift in high volume applications where there are a high number of battery charges, which loses valuable time and labor.

Hybrid Technology

We have seen the automobile industry invest a lot of money into the development of hybrid cars, which work with two forms of power generation, an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. Forklift manufacturers are playing with this technology to produce lifts that eliminates the need to change batteries. That’s because the second engine serves as a generator that keeps the battery juiced.


Central Washington Biodiesel LLC, a producer of biodiesel in Washington State supplied B99 biodiesel fuel for a construction project that built the Microsoft data center in Quincy, Washington. The company used its own biodiesel-powered forklift to convince RSC Equipment Rental to use biodiesel fuel to power its forklifts during the construction project. RSC Equipment was convinced and it transitioned its forklifts to use B99 biodiesel.

Jess Bennett, territory manager for RSC Equipment Rental, pointed out that the use of biodiesel presented no problems to the company’s fleet of diesel-powered forklifts. When Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries sent representatives to the construction site to check the air quality, they thought that their instruments were malfunctioning.

As a result of this project, RSC Equipment Rental has transitioned its entire fleet of forklifts to use biodiesel. The lifts use canola-based biodiesel, which performs well in cold weather at or near 20° Fahrenheit.

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