As Lithium-Ion Batteries Grow in Prominence, Safety Remains Top Consideration

Safer Handling
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When energy is involved, safety is always a major point of emphasis, particularly in the material handling field. Founded in 2023, the Advanced Energy Council (AEC) is an industry group within MHI that represents companies that produce, implement and support advanced energy technologies and accessories. Safety unsurprisingly is a focus of the new group’s efforts so far.

lithium ion batteries for modern commerce

Lithium-ion batteries for modern commerce

“With any energy source for electricity, there’s always the potential for it to dissipate as heat and fire instead of as electricity as it’s intended,” said Robin Schneider, vice chair of the AEC and director of marketing at MHI member Green Cubes Technology Corporation. “So, safety is inherently a concern. Part of what our group is doing is looking holistically at how we can safely and efficiently power material handling equipment.”

Lithium-ion batteries are the focus of the AEC group. While the batteries represent a relatively new energy source, they are growing in popularity as a sustainable, safe option for powering such material handling equipment as forklifts and autonomous mobile robots. From the outset of their introduction to the field, Maxim Khabur, chair of the AEC, said safety was the chief consideration.

“Safety has always been a priority for facility managers and other responsible managers who are buying forklifts and forklift batteries, so safety has always been on the radar as one of the necessary product features for lithium-ion batteries,” said Khabur, who is director of marketing at MHI member OneCharge, a manufacturer of lithium industrial batteries.

In particular, lithium-ion batteries are emerging as an alternative to the lead-acid batteries that have traditionally been used in material handling. Lead-acid batteries have safety parameters built into them, but “there are also some things that make them inherently somewhat dangerous,” said Schneider.

Some lead-acid batteries need to regularly undergo a maintenance process called “watering, which carries with it a risk for acid spills,” Schneider said. Other types of lead-acid batteries do not require watering but do have shorter lifecycles and get depleted, requiring them to be traded for a replacement, especially with heavy-duty cycles.

Because the batteries are so heavy, removing and installing them can be hazardous, leading to occasional injuries such as strained backs and crushed fingers or toes, Schneider said.

“This is continuous and a source of concern for warehouse managers,” Khabur said.

A lithium-ion battery does not require watering or being routinely replaced. While commercial lithium-ion batteries typically also are heavy by design, they might need to be replaced about once every five years instead of three times a day like some lead-acid batteries, Schneider said.

“A lithium-ion battery can run a 24/7 duty cycle with opportunity charging without ever having to be swapped out, so it can be a permanently embedded solution within the lift truck or within the robot,” Schneider said. “That of course is significantly safer.”

Some lithium batteries do pose a risk for thermal runaway, which can produce heat, outgassing and more rarely, fire. Thermal runaway is uncommon, and many safety features are in place to prevent the condition. Khabur said fires are increasingly rare and occur in “cheaper batteries that people are using inappropriately.”

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