Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used in consumer products and electric vehicles. The technology – maturing and becoming more competitive in price – is now becoming an option for more demanding applications as well. Alelion Energy Systems is a pioneer within Li-ion technology for forklifts, and the company – currently about to go public – is set to play a key role in the sustainability transition of materials handling.
”Lithium-ion batteries are replacing lead batteries as the first choice for energy storage. It is an entirely different and much more advanced technology. The batteries are easier to handle, require less maintenance and deliver running savings. From a sustainability perspective, they are far superior”, says Daniel Troedsson, CEO of Alelion Energy Systems.
”Not being reliant on toxic substances such as lead and sulphuric acid is good for the environment. Li-ion batteries have longer life and are more energy efficient than traditional technologies, and thus the carbon footprint is also reduced.”
An option for demanding applications
Li-ion is a well established technology in hand-held power tools, and such batteries are commonly found in consumer products like mobile phones, laptops, lawn edgers, hedge trimmers, lawn-mowers, drilling machines and electric bikes. They are also used in electric vehicles and hybrid cars; Toyota has switched to Li-ion batteries for their Prius, and the Tesla model S uses lithium-ion since its introduction. There are also examples of very heavy equipment in demanding applications being powered by lithium-ion batteries; hybrid aircraft tractors, for instance. (Read more in the article ”Hybrid Aircraft Tractors”).
”New opportunities arise with improved efficiency. Alelion has a particular interest in materials handling, and over the last two years, lithium-ion batteries for use in electric forklift trucks have been introduced. The cells are still more expensive than other technologies, but there are a number of advantages that make the investment worthwhile. We believe that the price of Li-ion cells will be cut in half within five years, due to increased production volume and more efficient manufacturing processes”, Daniel Troedsson says.
Trucks for storage and transport
”Several leading forklift manufacturers are knocking on our door, looking to use our battery solutions. It is a good sign, of course; the electric truck battery market is worth 42 billion SEK annually, and there is a lot of potential for expansion”, Daniel Troedsson says.
Alelion builds modular battery systems, adapted to optimise the customer’s product. The cells are manufactured by subcontractors, primarily in Asia, but the construction of the batteries and the integration of the system takes place in the company facilities in Mölndal and at a Swedish contract manufacturer. Alelion’s customers include both product manufacturers and end users of batteries, mostly within Europe. The company has its main focus on materials handling, where the demand is high for efficient, long life and sustainable solutions.
”Only a few of our competitors have a finished product to offer, and none of them can match the position we have in the forklift industry. Our 48 V forklift battery was the first on the market, and we have introduced several 24 V batteries for specific applications. It may sound like an odd example, but one of the most famous Champagne houses in France has replaced the batteries in their existing trucks with ours. Our batteries are also used in driverless trucks in the dairy industry”, Daniel says.
”From a technical perspective, the system consists of Li-ion cells, mechanical components, electronics and software. Everything is fitted in a sturdy steel tray, and the system is tailored according to the customers’ requests. We have developed a control software called BMS, Battery Management System. The software monitors and balances the battery cells to ensure optimal performance, and communicates with the surrounding system. A truck driver can for instance get information on charge status and usage statistics.
The BMS makes sure that the system operates within its safe temperature range. It also regulates the discharge to make sure that it occurs in a uniform manner, exhausting all connected cells at the same time. This is important, because a battery pack continues to discharge as long as any of the cells contains a charge. But if a cell discharges when it is exhausted, it can get damaged. Cells are connected in series, like a chain, and a weak link may cause the entire battery to fail”.
Environmental advantage and lower operating cost
According to Daniel Troedsson, lithium-ion has the following advantages compared with lead-acid batteries:
- Higher energy density – Li-ion batteries contain more energy per unit weight, and hence a smaller battery is sufficient for a certain application. A lead-acid powered smartphone would require about a pound of battery weight.
- Longer life – a lead-acid battery in a forklift lasts four years on average, while a lithium-ion battery lasts about ten years. This is longer than the estimated life of the truck itself (approximately eight years), which means that no battery replacements are needed.
- Energy efficient – the lithium-ion technology often achieves 30-40 percent better efficiency, and the electricity consumption is reduced accordingly.
- Maintenance free – lead-acid batteries require annual services and regular refills of water; without planned maintenance the battery won’t fulfil its potential service life. Alelion’s Li-ion batteries are maintenance-free and their status is automatically monitored by the BMS software.
- More robust – the BMS makes it difficult for a truck driver to damage a Li-ion battery through misuse. A lead-acid battery can be broken by accident.
- No need for separate charging rooms – unlike lead-acid batteries, no hydrogen gas is produced when a Li-ion battery is charged.
- Less climate impact – more resources and raw material are needed to manufacture a lead-acid battery with the same energy storage capacity, and the difference is magnified by the 2-4 times longer service life of Li-ion cells. The process of lead extraction is energy demanding and generates emissions.
- Recycling – according to a life cycle assessment by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, lithium-ion is less energy demanding, more carbon efficient, and less polluting than lead-acid technology. The cell used by Alelion contains lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper and aluminum. Of these elements, the extraction of copper and aluminum cause the most environmental concern, and it is important to recycle exhausted lithium-ion batteries. The cell materials show good recyclability; the aluminum casing, for instance, can be recycled many times without degradation.
”Many people are realizing that climate change and other environmental issues can’t be watched from the sidelines. And more and more companies are beginning to understand that measures towards sustainability are not only a matter of responsibility – they generate business value as well”.
”Our batteries cause less impact on the environment and allow truck manufacturers to make substantial savings on running costs. The product can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent and carcinogen emissions by 90 percent. It also provides an opportunity to cut electricity and running costs by hundreds of thousands SEK – and that is a strong sales point”, Daniel Troedsson says.
The article was published in June 2016.