Forklift power alternatives

Aug. 3, 2010
Sheila Kennedy, contributing editor, says propane and lead-acid are so 1990s compared to the options.

Lift trucks might experience an innovation and sales infusion thanks to proposed legislation that extends an existing fuel cell tax credit to buyers of this category of motor vehicle. Fuel cells produce energy through an electrochemical reaction of a fuel with air and producing only water as a by-product, making them a clean, quiet, energy-saving alternative to fuel-burning combustion engines and lead-acid batteries.

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Hydrogen and methanol are among the fuels currently being incorporated in forklift fuel cells. Meanwhile, as fuel cell technology continues to be refined, conventional power systems are being improved to alleviate environmental and fuel-cost concerns.

To speed development, lift truck and alternative energy manufacturers are collaborating. For instance, NACCO Materials Handling Group (NMHG), manufacturer of Hyster and Yale forklifts, offers a broad range of fuel-cell-ready lift trucks. NMHG works with hydrogen fuel cell developers, such as Hydrogenics, Plug Power and Nuvera Fuel Cells, as well as Air Products, which provides hydrogen fuel delivery systems. Numerous Yale dealers are distributors for the Oorja Protonics methanol fuel cells. NMHG also works with Enersys and Exide Technologies for standard and fast-charge battery technologies.

Hydrogen fuel cells: Hydrogen is the most commonly used fuel for fuel cells, and efforts are underway to replace batteries in electric material handling equipment with hydrogen fuel cell technology. An example is Plug Power’s low-temperature proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which is the backbone of its GenDrive fuel cell system. The PEM technology provides high power density and responsiveness to quick startups and sudden shifts in demand. The GenDrive system uses stacked hydrogen fuel cells to produce the necessary electrical current and voltage, which in turn is regulated by an integrated power-conditioning system and other key modules.


Companies such as The Linde Group are filling the safe hydrogen storage and refueling niche. Linde used its experience in producing, storing and distributing industrial gases to develop stationary and mobile solutions for the quick and efficient refueling of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Its new Ionic Compressor system, being introduced in the United States commercially this year, is a low-maintenance, low-noise, indoor or outdoor compression, storage and dispensing system for hydrogen-fueled vehicles. It uses an ionic liquid in direct contact with hydrogen, as opposed to conventional mechanical systems that use a piston in the pressurizing process.

Direct methanol fuel cells: Methanol also is viable for fuel cells. Compared to compressed hydrogen gas, methanol is less volatile and expensive, and its supply infrastructure is less complex. Oorja Protonics develops liquid methanol-based fuel cells and refueling stations for forklifts. The OorjaPac is an intelligent, on-board battery charger that trickle-charges the battery while the vehicle is operating and parked, which eliminates the time required to swap and charge batteries, and reduces acid emissions that overcharging causes. Designed specifically for the material handling industry, the OorjaPac fits in the vehicle’s battery compartment.

The company’s stationary OorjaRig Standard refueling cabinet provides storage for two 55-gallon methanol drums, while its OorjaRig Mobile unit carries from 10 gallons to 50 gallons of methanol on a wheeled cart. The hose-and-nozzle dispensing process is comparable to refueling a car. Approximately 5 gallons of methanol is sufficient to power two eight-hour shifts.

Fast charging system: Eliminating battery changes is the goal of AeroVironment’s PosiCharge system, an automated, hands-free fast charger for electric vehicle batteries. Its drive-up charging stations, available in indoor and outdoor models, allow lift trucks to be recharged during scheduled breaks without disconnecting the battery, eliminating the need for battery rooms. The system’s intelligent charge controls identify a battery’s charge profile, temperature and health to deliver a customized charge. By improving battery efficiency, material handlers need fewer batteries to operate a fleet, and fewer lead-acid batteries are subject to spillage and landfills.

Internal-combustion hybrid: Hybrid vehicles merge the best aspects of different power sources into a single approach. Toyota Industries combined a diesel engine, electric motor and battery power in its new Geneo-Hybrid lift truck. The 3.5-ton internal combustion truck uses a series-hybrid system for traveling, where the engine drives a generator that charges the battery, and the battery powers the drive motor for motion. A parallel-hybrid system is used for load handling, where both the engine and the generator run the load-handling hydraulic pump.

E-mail Contributing Editor Sheila Kennedy, managing director of Additive Communications, at [email protected].

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