© Scott Van Osdol

The energy bundles: inno­v­a­tive lithium-ion-battery for fork­lifts

Ethium by ECon­trols is leading the rapidly growing market for elec­tri­fied fork­lifts in the USA into a new era: from lead acid to more effi­cient and sustain­able lithium-ion batteries. The company has devel­oped five pioneering tech­nolo­gies for this in five years. Only one ques­tion remains unan­swered: Why is the old battery tech­nology still in use?

Logis­tics closes the gap between produc­tion and consump­tion. Every­thing we buy in stores, order online or have shipped to our homes was manu­fac­tured, pack­aged and loaded else­where. And it’s highly likely that at some point, a fork­lift truck  did the work, in a logis­tics center some­where in the world. Fork­lift trucks are the busy bees in ware­house and logis­tics. They often work 24 hours a day, up to 365 days a year. The good news is that the majority of these millions of machines are now elec­tric. The “bad news” is that the power usually comes from a lead-acid battery.

Firstly, this is less envi­ron­men­tally friendly – the heavy metal lead is a hazard to health and the envi­ron­ment even in low doses – and secondly, it’s stren­uous for the fork­lift drivers on shifts. Working three shifts a day, the team has to replace the lead acid battery three times. After the eight-hour shift is over, the proce­dure is always as follows: Hook up the empty battery on the charging cable, measure the water level and add water if neces­sary, put the replace­ment battery in the fork­lift and move on to the next shift.

There’s a lot of power in these boxes. This is key for hard-working forklifts in logistics.

A fork­lift truck there­fore needs at least 2 to 3 lead acid batteries per working day, which have to be alter­nately charged, re-installed and prop­erly cared for to fulfill their service life. This costs logis­tics special­ists time and money to deploy and main­tain them.

Elec­tri­fied – but how?

Ethium is an incu­bated start-up within ECon­trols, a US leader and global provider of engine control solu­tions and fuel systems for fork­lift trucks. They know the market, under­stand how fork­lift trucks are used as well as how complex and expen­sive oper­a­tion with lead-acid batteries is. Jinger McPeak, Vice Pres­i­dent of Ethium, says, “The fork­lift truck market is much further ahead with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion than, for example, the auto­mo­tive sector. At Ethium, it was clear to us that the next step now had to be a more sustain­able drive solu­tion – so, we devel­oped the most advanced battery on the market. We wanted to develop this solu­tion using inspi­ra­tion from our long time OEM customers who were part of this trans­for­ma­tion.” Ethium began to develop a lithium-ion battery for the fork­lift truck market in 2016.

“The fork­lift truck market is elec­tri­fied to a large extent. Now, together with the OEM, we are taking the next step towards a more sustain­able drive solu­tion.”

Jinger McPeak, Vice Pres­i­dent Ethium by ECon­trols

The parent company’s many years of expe­ri­ence and data records from all of the cali­bra­tions, engine control systems and fuel systems for fork­lift trucks were advan­ta­geous for the company. Never­the­less, the devel­opers started from scratch. “Every project at Ethium starts with a level 1 meeting. We put all our smart minds from the different disci­plines into a room, throw the idea on the wall and ask, ‘what do you think?’ And then it is discussed and pondered. With 200 engi­neers at the company, many of them with PhDs, this can be a lively discus­sion,” explains Jinger McPeak with a laugh. “But we believe in vigorous debate and this is how the best solu­tions come about.”

5 sustain­able tech­no­log­ical advan­tages for the lithium-ion battery

For a total of five years, the engi­neers worked on the lithium-ion battery, and devel­oped five sustain­able tech­no­log­ical advan­tages that ensure its safety and dura­bility. Jinger McPeak calls it “an engi­neering marvel”: The battery box is more compact than a stan­dard lead-acid battery, with double the charging capacity. In just one hour, it is fully charged, water and normal main­te­nance are not required, and it still has up to four times the service life. The envi­ron­mental aspect was also impor­tant in the devel­op­ment phase, “the core of our solu­tion is lithium iron phos­phate (LFP). It is non-flam­mable, non-explo­sive, has a maximum service life and maximum discharge depth. It has neither cobalt nor nickel, meaning fewer raw mate­rials.” One of the five sustain­able advan­tages is called “active balancing.” The “energy level” of the cells is constantly moni­tored and, if neces­sary, energy is fed from a full cell to one with a lower charge so that all cells are always charged and discharged evenly.

Jinger McPeak with two engi­neers at the San Antonio site in Texas. Team­work could hardly be more impor­tant. (Photo | Scott Van Odsol)

Mounted on top of the battery are the four compact fans from ebm-papst, for active cooling. (Photo | Scott Van Osdol)

This makes the battery much more effi­cient and prolongs its service life. For protec­tion, Ethium relies on “active safety” and “passive safety” tech­nology. Active safety involves moni­toring the data that is constantly supplied by the battery manage­ment system and provides infor­ma­tion about the current condi­tion. Passive means that all cells are connected using bonded wire: if a cell leaves its “comfort zone,” it is auto­mat­i­cally switched off as with a fuse. Every module within the battery has its own Battery Manage­ment elec­tronics providing the most intel­li­gent and respon­sive of any battery on the market.

Temper­a­ture is an essen­tial element in batteries. The tech­nolo­gies for this are “active heating” and “active cooling,” explains Jinger McPeak, “The dura­bility of lithium-ion batteries relies heavily on them always having pleasant ‘T-shirt temper­a­tures’. This is why our batteries are actively cooled and actively heated.” Sensors measure the temper­a­ture of many of the hundreds of cells per battery module – around 3,000 cells in total per battery box. If it is too hot or too cold, the battery manage­ment system sets the air condi­tioner or heating accord­ingly.

Ethium produces its battery solu­tion in San Antonio, Texas. Here, the compact fan from ebm-papst is currently being assem­bled. (Photo | Scott Van Osdol)
Produc­tion at Ethium just as inno­v­a­tive as their battery solu­tion. (Photo | Scott Van Osdol)

A compact fan for cooling

The IP68-protected compact fan 4118/2H4PU from ebm-papst is respon­sible for active cooling. It extracts outside air through ducts in the battery housing, dissi­pates it through the metal side of the modules and cools the cells in a targeted manner. The compact fan is UL-certi­fied, an OEM safety regu­la­tion that is required for use on the Amer­ican market. Joe Giacona, Director Trans­porta­tion and Mobile at ebm-papst in Farm­ington, USA, says, “Ethium approached us for a robust solu­tion for active cooling of their battery. Our team worked closely with their engi­neers and our colleagues in Germany to find the optimal compact fan that exactly met the perfor­mance require­ments.”

Jinger McPeak empha­sizes: “The fact that our engi­neers chose the compact fan based on its perfor­mance values and robust­ness, and decided against devel­oping their own solu­tion, defi­nitely speaks for the product and is a compli­ment!” Now, if a customer would like to switch from the lead-acid to the lithium-ion battery, they can simply replace the old battery with a new battery from Ethium and off they go. Thanks to the stan­dard­ized connec­tions and the iden­tical size, this tran­si­tion is swift and simple. But Jinger McPeak sees the wealth of data as one of the biggest advan­tages for customers.

This is how Ethium’s inno­v­a­tive battery solu­tion works

“Someone managing a fork­lift fleet needs reli­able data around the clock: The battery provides a range of infor­ma­tion, including on the battery charge status, service life and behavior during an average shift, via a web inter­face. No one has to guess or rely on their gut feeling. In the best case scenario, our customers even uncover addi­tional logis­tics capac­i­ties and can use fork­lift trucks more effi­ciently without having to purchase new equip­ment.”

Over the course of one shift, the drivers charge the lithium-ion batteries during their short work breaks. All in all, charging takes no longer than sixty minutes per shift. No need to measure the water level, add water, or perform main­te­nance. Several thou­sand charging cycles in 18 months without loss of capacity. “We are ready for the trans­for­ma­tion,” says Jinger McPeak.

Learn more about compact fans:

Compact fans: axial, radial, diag­onal

For high air perfor­mance and pres­sures with low consump­tion.

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