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Energy sources and technologies: Alternatives spark interest

Monday, 27 Apr 2015 ( #716 )
Special Feature
Battery Supplies
After 150 years of lead-acid battery domination, the last few decades have seen a rapid development in alternative energy sources. In the second part of the batteries feature, Melissa Barnett looks at some of the new energy technologies available and whether they really do challenge the current market leaders.

Driven by rising fuel prices and increasingly stringent clean energy regulations, new energy sources such as lithium batteries, fuel cells and hydrogen are being developed as leaner and cleaner energy sources. Early adopters of the new technology were heavily supported by government incentives and many believe that this was the only reason the technology could be justified. However, in recent times, the technologies have been able to demonstrate a positive return on investment.

Alexander De Soete, general manager for Belgian company Battery Supplies, believes that new technologies are always expensive at the beginning. "You must always look at the application and what advantages there are for the customer with new technology. For example, Li-ion batteries are more expensive to purchase, but there is no maintenance, double lifecycle, fast charge, intermediate charges, no gasses during charging and no changing batteries between shifts after initial purchase, so in certain applications, the return on investment can surely be more interesting than traditional technologies," he suggests.

Kari Johansson, technical director for Rocla Oy, predicts that recycling costs will increase over time and this, together with a greater awareness for the environment, will drive environmentally friendly solutions which, in turn, will become cheaper.

Lithium Batteries

The earliest challengers to traditional lead-acid batteries were lithium metal batteries. Lithium is the lightest known metal, with the greatest electrochemical potential. The reactive trait of lithium allows for very high energy and power–density potential. After initial and justified concerns about safety (lithium battery chemistry tended to be unstable during cycling, which caused changes in the battery and the internal temperature to rise suddenly and quickly causing thermal runaway), lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology was developed which made the battery much safer.

PosiCharge-brand systems from AeroVironment Inc are being used by Nestlé.
Blake Dickinson, director of application engineering at Aerovironment PosiCharge, says that although there were some early safety concerns with lithium batteries, difficulties were not experienced in the materials handling equipment sector. "There have been no reported lithium battery incidents to date in the MHE market, but the fear is that some low-cost battery pack assemblers will enter the market and put in unsafe technology," he says. Dickinson adds that cell spacing, fusing, temperature management and battery management systems (BMS) are key to the safe use of lithium batteries. " A cell will eventually fail and the pack design must allow it to fail safely. Furthermore, the BMS must be designed to prevent overcharge of the individual cells and thermal management must be in place to provide adequate cooling in the heavier duty applications," he explains.

Flux Power lithium battery pack
There are many different lithium-ion batteries and some are safer than others, according to Ron Dutt, chief executive of Flux Power. "With careful selection of proper chemistry for the application, combined with proper testing and certification, new technologies based on our experience with lithium can be safely deployed with hugely successful results," he says.  Flux Power has been experimenting with a number of new materials such as manganese spinel and nano-phosphate. Dutt is particularly excited about nano-phosphate for lithium iron phosphate-based Li-ion batteries which he believes will dramatically increases cycle lifetime and power output.

Manufacturers and users of Li-ion batteries say they charge faster, have a longer battery life than lead-acid, perform in a wider range of temperatures, are lighter and need little or no maintenance. Li-ion battery packs are now a mainstream materials handling energy option, with a number of OEMs including Toyota, Crown, Yale and Linde using them mainly in small electric forklifts and pallet movers. Paul Malone, vice-president of marketing and sales for US company Voltabox, adds that there has been an increase in adoption of automated guided vehicles (AGV) for materials handling and this has also helped drive the use of Li-ion batteries. Li-ion batteries can be recharged in under 10 minutes and AGVs can be programmed to opportunity charge at given breaks during the work day.

Voltabox lithium battery pack
If there is any lingering doubt that Li-ion batteries are one of the most popular of the new energy source technologies, Daiwa Capital Markets in a recent global market report on energy storage stated that Li-ion technology was the dominant technology in mobile devices and electric vehicles. Market growth is expected to increase 5.5 times between 2010 and 2020 and be worth USD60.8 billion by 2020.

Fuel Cells

The 2013 report by Fuel Cells 2000, a not-for-profit organisation, suggests that there were 5,000 fuel cell-powered materials handling vehicles operating in North America at the time. Andy Marsh, chief executive of Plug Power, which has an 85% share of the US fuel cell market, estimates that it is now closer to 6,500.

Fuel cells and the hydrogen used to power them are the most controversial of all the new energy technologies. There have been doubts about their viability, cost of infrastructure, demands on forklift design and return on investment, but users and manufacturers say that a fuel cell-powered forklift can run up to three times longer than its battery-powered counterpart, while maintaining constant voltage and power output. Refuelling can be done in three minutes or less and only needs to be done twice a day. They are quiet to operate, have no moving parts and, most importantly for meeting environmental standards, the only by-products from the reaction are water, heat and electricity. While the initial outlay for both the fuel cell stack and the infrastructure might be more expensive than a traditional battery set-up, some believe that ROI can be seen within 12 months on larger forklift fleets in multi-shift operations.

Nuvera at Golden State Foods, Illinois
Gus Block, director of marketing at Nuvera Fuel Cells, explains that fuel cells can easily be swapped into a forklift’s existing battery cavity. He adds that the viability of fuel cell technology for forklift fleets depends on equipment requirements, the duty cycle and other factors. "Hydrogen costs can vary depending on the size of fleet, the cost of utilities and geographic location," he says.

Fuel cell design varies according to the power demands of a given system and the operating temperatures that best suit that particular application. Higher operating temperatures allow the use of fewer pure hydrogen sources, as fuel cells are capable of chemically extracting hydrogen from a variety of fuels like methanol and even fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. Different materials are used for the fuel cell membrane, with the proton exchange membrane (PEM) becoming the most popular in electric vehicles. A PEM cell uses hydrogen gas and oxygen gas as fuel. Plug Power’s Marsh says that his company has recently deployed the largest commercial use of PEM hydrogen fuel cells in multi-shift forklifts at four Walmart sites across North America. Walmart has over 100 distribution sites across the US and plans to convert them all to fuel cell technology.

Plug Power GenFuel indoor dispenser
One of the main issues for hydrogen fuel cells has been sourcing, delivering and/or storing of hydrogen for use. Marsh believes that his company has the solution. In conjunction with Walmart, Plug Power developed GenKey – a turnkey solution which helps the customer transition seamlessly to hydrogen fuel cells. With the GenKey solution, Plug Power operates as a single-source vendor - manufacturing, supplying and managing fuel cell units; providing hydrogen storage and dispensing infrastructure and molecules; and supplying aftermarket care and service. Since the implementation of GenKey in 2014, Plug Power have built 10 hydrogen storage and dispensing facilities for FedEx, Walmart, Volkswagen and Honda and has another 15 planned for construction in 2015.

In November 2014, Nuvera delivered a PowerTap-brand on-site hydrogen generator and fuelling station to manufacturer-distributor Golden State Foods Corp at its new regional headquarters and logistics centre in McCook, Illinois. Nuvera says the facility will consume less than 50 kg of hydrogen per day for 39 fuel cell forklifts, including 11 Class 2 stand-up reach trucks and 28 Class 3 rider pallet trucks. Nuvera’s PowerTap on-site hydrogen generator converts natural gas and water into 99.995% pure hydrogen. Block says that multiple generators can be used to meet increased demand. The PowerTap system includes the hydrogen generation, compression and storage equipment, all of which is installed on a concrete pad outside the facility. Hydrogen is then piped to fuel dispensers located at convenient points inside. On-site generation of hydrogen eliminates regular hydrogen delivery costs and logistics management, and because hydrogen is used soon after it is generated, less fuel storage is required. For many smaller forklift fleets, on-site generation also makes more economic sense, adds Block.

The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for fuel cells and other energy technologies will expire at the end of 2016. There is a possibility that this incentive may be extended or become permanent. Although the ITC supports early adoption by the market, NMHG and Nuvera are developing  advanced power solutions that are intended to provide a value proposition for customers,  independent of tax incentives.

And while it is recognised even by fuel cell manufacturers that the technology and marketing has some way to go, the fact that a number of high-profile OEMs including NACCO Materials Handling, Toyota and Linde have been investing in fuel cell technology must surely suggest that there is strong confidence in this energy source.
Howard Will, chief technology officer for Linde, stated in a recent interview that in the long term, he believes hydrogen can become the number one energy source. "No other system is so environmentally friendly and, at the same time, so efficient. It is our long-term objective to make fuel cell forklifts competitive," Will said.

In December 2014, Hyster-Yale acquired Nuvera for USD6.9 million. Hyster-Yale believes the acquisition positions the company to possibly become the first forklift original equipment manufacturer to integrate fuel cell technology across large parts of its forklift portfolio.

Other energy sources

Rocla’s Johannsson firmly believes that environmentally friendly energy solutions with good lifetime costs are the future – whatever technology it may be based on. De Soete can’t see why solar technology can’t be integrated with existing energy technology such as Li-ion. "You drive electric - the energy used to recharge your batteries could be from the most ecological solution – solar panels," he suggests. Malone of Voltabox agrees: "Solar power can be a part of a sustainable charging strategy when combined with high-efficiency battery technology."

Whether it’s lithium batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, solar panels or biofuels, the world wants and needs cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable energy sources. Fortune 500 businesses know it and so, too, do the leading materials handling OEMs.  

Missed the first part? You can access it here.

Additional information by our contributors:

Battery Supplies
: website
Plug Power, Inc.
: website
AeroVironment PosiCharge
: website
Nuvera Fuel Cells: website
Flux Power, Inc.: website
Voltabox of Texas, Inc.: website
Rocla Solutions Oy: website

And Special Thanks:

Delta-Q Technologies:  website
EnerSys:  website
Systems Sunlight S.A.:  website
Douglas Battery:  website
Intella Liftparts Inc®:  website
Battery-Gurus, s. r. o.:  website
Battery Council International: website
Carer Electric Forklift Trucks: website
TVH Energic Plus®: website
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