Such is the complexity of environmental issues surrounding forklifts, operators could be forgiven for wondering which way to turn when trying to do their best to meet their carbon footprint targets. It is not just the power source that is looking more complex but also how the fuel consumption is managed and spent products recycled. One could even extend the consideration further to include the type of forklifts used. Does it make sense, for example, to have a warehouse much larger than it need be, with all the attendant CO2 issues, when one could switch from conventional, counterbalance forklifts working in 3.5mt wide aisles to articulated forklifts needing only 1.6mt aisles?

There is considerable disagreement over the new fuel options emerging, and in particular their time frame to achieve commercially acceptable targets. Hybrid trucks have been touted as one route to take and in this Mitsubishi Forklift Trucks launched its Grendia Ex hybrid, featuring a drive train incorporating a diesel engine and a lithium-ion battery. It offers much lower CO2 emissions than its traditional counterpart and its fuel consumption is cut by 39%. However, Clarke’s technical director, Andreas Krause, is almost dismissive of hybrid trucks, hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion batteries.

“Real” hybrid vehicles incorporate at least two energy converters or motor systems and that means doubled costs and maintenance and service and more stringent safety requirements. On fuel cells he says they are unable to stand up to operating costs and environmental protection parameters. “The manufacture of hydrogen, the costs and the lack of infrastructure indicate that the future of industrial vehicle drives does not lie in fuel cells,” he claims.

Forklift battery producer, Hoppecke, echoes some of those sentiments with regard to Li-ion. They believe that lead acid batteries will remain the battery of choice in counterbalance and reach trucks for some considerable time. Part of the problem is the Li-ion’s relatively low weight, so to make up for that some deadweight would have to be added as a counterbalance until such times trucks are developed that don’t need a weight to counter the lifted load. However, tow tractors, pallet trucks and 24V floor trucks could benefit from Li-ion batteries, which enable a truck to run 24 hours without a battery charge. There are many other advantages but they are nine times more costly than lead acid units.

Hoppecke believes fibre nickel cadmium (FNC) offers a more economical choice. It has many of the advantages of Li-ion but costs only 3.5 times more than lead acid. Comparing the benefits of both, Hoppecke says that FNC offers 90% of the benefits of Li-ion batteries but at just a third of the cost. Undoubtedly, when production increases Li-ion battery costs will fall but Hoppecke believes that is between five and ten years away.

While electric powered forklifts may continue to supplant internal combustion engine trucks the latter will still be the truck of choice for years to come and firms like Jungheinrich are not standing still on the need to make these trucks greener. It views methanol as one of the better options for fuelling IC trucks. The technology for thisis not new and Jungheinrich believes methanol processed from natural gas is particularly suited for use with small trucks such as low level order pickers and powered pallet trucks.

Truck operating systems also play a key part in making trucks greener. Trucks constantly operated at high speed, with a lot of braking and acceleration, will use more energy and so is wasteful of electricity or fuel consumed. To counter this, Mitsubishi has installed programmable controllers which can adjust the various parameters, such as speed and acceleration, to appropriate levels. Research shows that the loss of productivity from programming the power level down is almost negligible. In terms of electric trucks, the potential for saving energy by reducing speed and acceleration is greater in AC than in DC products.

The future may be looking greener for forklift motive power but the choices could become even more bewildering. Who knows, we may see anaerobic digesters producing methane gas from waste food to power forklifts. It is already happening in the cargo shipping world.

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