Chain of Thought

Should Lithium be Mined for Forklifts Too?

At the last CeMat show held in Hannover, Germany, it seemed as if every lift truck OEM exhibit had something about lithium ion batteries. At previous CeMats fuel cells were all the rage. But in the U.S. these technologies are still considered niche. Recently I blogged about how the Obama Administration is funding battery R&D to drive new technologies into the mainstream—at least where cars are concerned. If that happens will the U.S. market see what CeMat visitors saw—but this time on their own soil?

I talked to Steve Spaar about this recently and he still sees roadblocks in the warehouse. He's marketing director of Enersys, makers of stored energy technologies for industrial applications as well as for reserve power, aerospace/defense and specialty applications. Although his company is investing in lithium ion battery manufacturers as well as fuel cell companies, these technologies have a way to go before hitting prime time in the U.S. forklift market, he believes.

“One of the problems for lithium ion in the lift truck battery market is cost,” he told me. “I've heard anything from five to seven times the cost of a flooded lead acid battery would be required to purchase a similar lithium ion.”

Another problem for the lift truck business is that in two of the lift truck types, sit-down rider and high reach, the counterbalance for the lift truck is supplied mainly by a lead acid battery. With a lithium ion battery you lose that counterbalance without the kind of special engineering fuel cell makers are working on.

Then there's the availability issue. Lithium is a commodity mined from the soil of politically unstable countries like Bolivia. There's extra cost here too, and it's not just financial.

If the market could get around these costs, Spaar sees the biggest promise for lithium ion in pallet jacks, mainly because there's no counterweight issue.

Spaar is more optimistic about fuel cells for forklifts—mostly because of government subsidies.

“For fuel cells it seems a lot of these subsidies are designed to encourage non automotive or consumer markets to adopt the fuel cell technology to try to bring costs down so it's more acceptable,” he said. “However on the lithium ion side it almost appears the mass market will be established in the automobile industry first, which may lead to lower costs which may incent more development on the industrial side.”

In the meantime, those battery makers I mentioned in my previous blog—the ones hoping to get their share of government funding for R&D—are making some pretty fair headway conquering other lithium ion roadblocks.

A123 Systems, a developer and manufacturer of advanced Nanophosphate lithium ion phosphate batteries and systems, recently introduced Nanophosphate EXT, a new lithium ion battery technology capable of operating at extreme temperatures without requiring thermal management. That means significantly reducing or eliminating the need for heating or cooling systems, which is expected to create new opportunities in the transportation and telecommunications markets.

“By delivering high power, energy and cycle life capabilities over a wider temperature range, we believe we can reduce or even eliminate the need for costly thermal management systems, which we expect will dramatically enhance the business case for deploying A123's lithium ion battery solutions for a significant number of applications," said David Vieau, A123's CEO. "We expect this to create new opportunities for applications that previously were not possible to cost-effectively serve with lithium ion batteries."

Whether one of those opportunities is in a U.S. plant or warehouse may be determined on the road first.

Related Editorial:

Coalition Urges DOT to Take Action Against Some Battery Shippers

Making Sense of Power Sources

Forklift Fast Charging: The Positives and Negatives

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