Lithium takes charge

Humanity has been fascinated by electricity for a long time. The word itself comes from the Greek “electron” which means amber as small particles were seen to stick to amber once it had been rubbed. It was the American Benjamin Franklin who first referred to an electric “battery “using the term in a letter to humorously suggest that electrical experimenters should receive battery salute for their successes. Although he was referring to an artillery battery, the same term was then applied to his glass, lead and brine system to store electricity for future use.

As the storage of electricity is central to the modern world’s attempts to wean itself off fossil fuels, there has been huge interest in developing new battery chemistries to allow for the efficient storage of electrical energy in a multitude of applications. For materials handling equipment in warehouses, especially in those applications where electrical as opposed to diesel or gas power is required, including cold and freezer stores, batteries have traditionally been of the lead-acid type.

Lithium battery adaptor to a lead-acid battery container with multiple charging points. Two of which can be used at the same time.

Lead-acid batteries are heavy, weighing over 1000kgs for counterbalance forklift applications, require special well ventilated charging areas as they give off noxious gases when charging, as well as heat. They also require constant maintenance to check the sulphuric acid electrolyte levels and to balance the electrical discharge from the individual battery cells. In tough cold storage applications, lead-acid batteries with good maintenance should last for approximately 8000 hours of operation. When charging they can store about 70% of the electricity supplied with the rest ending up as heat, requiring a cooling-off period before use. Where forklifts and other materials handling equipment is being used on a multi-shift basis, each vehicle should have three lead-acid batteries, one on an eight-hour charge, one cooling off and one in use on the machine. Battery changes have always been difficult given lead-acid battery weights and sheer size. All these activities require a substantial non -productive area in warehouses and cold stores.

Balancell, established in 2008 by Dr Ian de Vries, is based in Paarden Eiland, Cape Town. Its original objective was to design and fit monitoring equipment on warehouse motive batteries. While this proved difficult due to the tough environment, battery recharging heat, freezing temperatures in cold stores and corrosive sulphuric acid, the information received from the ruggedly designed solid-state battery monitors enabled lead-acid batteries to function more efficiently, in some cases doubling their useful lifecycles. Being involved with motive batteries, Dr de Vries identified the advantages of the new Lithium Ferro phosphate batteries (LFP). These should be distinguished from Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC) batteries which are used in lightweight applications like tablets and cell phones. LFP batteries, while heavier than the NMC variety, are more chemically stable and are inherently safe.  They will not self ignite nor burn if punctured or crushed, making them ideal for materials handling equipment. Balancell is now manufacturing battery packs at its Cape Town factory using LFP cells imported from China, which incorporate the original monitoring equipment as adapted for the new battery chemistry. 

John Petrie with a reach truck battery. The white box on top is the monitoring unit.

In comparison with lead-acid batteries, LFP batteries with the same amp-hour rating are typically a quarter of the size and weight. On charging they produce no gas, so don’t require a special charging area. They also thrive on opportunity charging, typically during lunch and tea breaks. Normal charging takes about two hours as opposed to eight for a Lead acid battery and is 95% efficient meaning minimal heat is emitted. An LFP battery has powered a forklift for 23 hours on one full charge. However LFP batteries don’t like being left for long in a discharged state, so the battery monitoring unit warns the driver and shuts them down at 10% of capacity.

Pricewise, LFP batteries are approximately double the price of their lead-acid equivalent. But their life cycle is up to 2.5 times longer meaning that a forklift should only require one battery in seven years. Forklifts using the lead-acid variety require three batteries which will on average last for three years. No special battery charging areas are needed and the health and safety aspects of gassing, spilt acid and the sheer difficulty of battery changes are removed.

All the forklifts at Cape Fruit Cooler’s new high volume throughput Richmond Park facility are powered with Balancell’s LFP batteries. Please click on the attached link:

For more information on Balancell’s new batteries, why not contact them at . John Petrie, with a lifetime’s experience in materials handling equipment, is now consulting for Balancell. He can be contacted directly on 082 907 0994 or