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Around since 1859, the lead acid battery has been a dominant power source for electric forklifts but is it about to be challenged by other fuel sources? LPG and diesel, of course, have long since been viable alternatives, but growing environmental concerns have encouraged many truck operators to switch to electric where indoor work is prevalent. Even so, i c engine trucks are always available around the clock and are more suited to high performance rugged work, especially where there are slopes, which would quickly drain batteries.

Environmental attachments, like catalytic converters and soot filters, also help reduce noxious emissions substantially and then there is the prospect of making i.c trucks even cleaner with ethanol as the fuel. Hybrid trucks have also been touted as a greener move but these diesel/electric  trucks involve at least two energy converters or motors and that means doubled costs and maintenance and more exacting safety requirements. There is also a strong incentive to remain with i c trucks because users do not want to spend much time charging and changing batteries, but battery technology advances are undermining that objection.

Good examples of battery advances are high frequency rapid charge and air circulation batteries like Hoppecke’s trak air. The latter reduces water consumption by up to 70% and sharply prolongs battery life. The high frequency chargers can cut charging times by around 2.5 hours. But what else is likely to keep lead-acid batteries ahead of the pack?

Running a truck on electricity costs about 3.5 times less than LPG. Moreover, battery companies like Hoppecke provide ’Power for Life’ service which they claim can reduce the cost of operating an electric forklift by up to 40%. Its fleet management products like trak monitor also reduces the requirement for spare batteries and chargers by between 30% and 50%.

If electric forklift users feel they are not getting satisfactory battery service it is almost always the users’ fault because battery failure through a faulty product is extremely rare and the only reason why a battery would fail would be incorrect operation and sub standard maintenance. There are very few companies with in-house maintenance teams to look after batteries. Most operators prefer instead to use the driver to top up and maintain the battery or use outsourced labour. Those with planned maintenance contracts will probably account for 30% of the industry.  Those without such contracts will give little thought to the correct maintenance of the battery.

This can be a big mistake. As GNB Industrial Power UK explains: “Whole life costs are the real issue. This is where purchasing a complete package, including maintenance, becomes the most viable option.” More customers, says GNB, are realizing that purchasing a complete energy package can actually work out less expensive, and certainly more efficient, in the long run.

So will other power sources soon establish themselves meaningfully? Although green at point of use, hydrogen fuel cell trucks are not green at the hydrogen production stage. Nor, at present, are they able to stand up to operating costs. Lithium-ion certainly has a future but not until forklift companies start to design the truck around the product in view of the battery weight loss problem, because the much lighter Li-ion batteries would prove an inadequate counterbalance to the lifted load. Battery companies like GNB, however, are continuing to invest in new technology and are looking at ways to address this problem.

Li-ion is, however, suitable for 24V floor trucks where there is no counterbalance issue. Such batteries certainly stack up on operating costs against lead acid because they are maintenance-free with no refilling required, no gassing, no pollution and no ventilation issues. They also offer zero degradation, higher capacity, a much greater life cycle, a better weight-to-power ratio and the ability to be opportunity charged very quickly. But the batteries are nine times more costly than lead acid and there remains the need to start manufacture in a commercial market, which will probably be controlled by the automotive industry. By comparison, fibre nickel cadmium traction batteries cost only around 3.5 times more than lead and offer most of the advantages of Li-ion, though currently they are rarely used in materials handling applications.

Lead acid batteries may be old in the traction power industry but they are not about to give up the ghost any time soon.

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