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Lead-acid batteries may have been king as a supplier of energy for forklifts for more than 150 years, but recently there has been a proliferation of new energy sources and technologies. These include new style batteries including ion lithium, fuel cells, and even solar.
Now the question that forklift fleet managers need to answer is: Which of these new sources of energy is best for my forklift fleet?
The development of new fuel sources and technologies has been due to two factors –- the cost of energy and the environment.
Each new energy source has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, Lithium Ion Batteries are more expensive than other energy sources, but there is no need for maintenance and these batteries offer double the lifecycle as lead-acid batteries. Moreover, they are fast to charge, there are no gasses to be emitted during charging, there is no need to charge batteries between shifts when first purchased, and return of investment is better than with other available technologies.
The technology is also flexible. For example, there are many different styles of lithium-ion batteries including manganese spinal and nano-phosphate, which are known to be safe. Experts in battery manufacturing claim that lithium iron phosphate-based Lithium Ion batteries offer a dramatic increase in cycle lifetime and power output.
We have published here a number of stories about hydrogen fuel cells as a major alternative to electric batteries. In many cases it is still being tested. In 2013 a not-for-profit group with the goal to inform the public about the benefits of fuel cells, noted in a study that there were 5,000 fuel-cell powered material handling vehicles in use in North America at that time. However, the chief executive of Plug Power, a company that manufactures and sells fuel cells and has an 85% share of the fuel cell market in the United States, reports that there are now about 6,500 fuel cell powered vehicles in use.
There are some early issues pertaining to fuel cells. For example, the infrastructure is still relatively new, but growing and forklift manufacturers have been pushed into changing forklift design to accommodate. There have also been questions concerning return on investment.
However, those who have used or manufactured fuel cells say that a fuel-cell powered forklift can run up to three times longer than a battery-powered lift while maintaining constant voltage and power output. They claim that one can fuel a cell in three minutes or less and it only has to be done twice a day. Other advantages include that they are quiet to operate, have no moving parts to break or wear out, and they are environmentally friendly emitting just water, heat and electricity. Supporters of fuel cells admit that they are more expensive than a traditional battery, but return on investment can be achieved within 12 months on larger forklift fleets used in multiple shifts, they claim.
Some detractors of the technology say that sourcing, delivering, and/or storing hydrogen present problems. However, companies including Plug Power and Nuvera have been have been offering solutions. Plug Power actually provides everything a forklift fleet could need including the fuel cell, hydrogen and hydrogen storage and aftermarket care and service. In fact, Plug Power has built hydrogen storage and dispensing facilities for FedEx, Walmart, Volkswagen and Honda. In 2014 Nuvera supplied hydrogen generator and fueling station to manufacturers-distributors.
In addition, a number of manufacturers of material handling vehicles including NACCO, Toyota and Linde have been investing in fuel cell technology. Many of these manufacturers claim that hydrogen fuel cells will be the number one energy source in the not-to-distant future.
There are even advocates for the use of solar panels to keep lithium ion batteries charged. Others are advocating the use of biofuels.
Famed Greek philosopher Plato said, “Necessity, who is the mother of invention.” Indeed it is and it has been driving suppliers of energy for forklifts to come up with and offer many different ways to fuel forklift fleets.