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Heavy Lifting: Komatsu Tests Sodium-Ion Batteries for Forklifts

April 12, 2024 by Jake Hertz

Komatsu has introduced an electric forklift powered by sodium-ion batteries, offering safer and more affordable operation.

Sodium-ion batteries have emerged as a significant contender in the search for more sustainable and cost-effective energy storage solutions. Sodium, abundant in the Earth's crust, offers a stark advantage over the scarcer and more expensive lithium in lithium-ion batteries. This abundance translates into lower raw material costs and reduced impact associated with mining and processing.

Komatsu has piloted a program to employ sodium-ion batteries for all-electric forklifts. This article examines lithium-ion battery technology limitations and Komatsu’s battery technology.

 

Electric forklift.

Electric forklift. Image used courtesy of Komatsu

 

Comparing Battery Technology

Lithium-ion has long dominated battery technology because of its high energy density and long cycle life. However, growing concerns regarding their environmental impact and the limited availability of lithium resources have influenced researchers to look at other battery chemistries.

Sodium-ion batteries offer a promising alternative since sodium is 500 times more abundant and widely distributed than lithium, reducing concerns about resource depletion. As such, sodium extraction is easier and cheaper and leads to more environmentally friendly solutions—all of which align with broader industry goals of sustainability. 

 

Sodium-ion battery

Sodium-ion battery. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

When comparing Li-ion and sodium-ion batteries, several other factors come into play. Li-ion batteries generally boast higher energy densities and better performance metrics, making them preferable to demanding applications such as the aerospace industry. However, sodium-ion batteries offer advantages in terms of cost-effectiveness and safety, as sodium is cheaper and less prone to thermal runaway reactions. In most cases, sodium-ion batteries also offer faster charging rates.

Given these unique benefits, sodium-ion technology presents a promising avenue for achieving a more balanced and sustainable energy storage ecosystem.

 

Next-Gen Forklift Technology

To integrate sodium-ion batteries into more mainstream applications, Komatsu initiated a program to use them in forklifts.

Komatsu's approach focused on replacing lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries in its forklift with a single sodium-ion technology. While more technical details aren’t known, the concept utilizes a sodium-ion battery pack developed by Shanghai Hirano Environment Technology Co. and features cells from Jiangsu Highstar Battery Manufacturing Co. It is important to note that Komatsu is not directly pitting its sodium concept against lithium-ion technology, as a car manufacturer might prefer energy density to other factors. Instead, the comparison revolves around adopting a single battery technology over its current dual approach. This involves using lithium-ion for heavy-load operations and traditional lead-acid batteries for medium operations. 

 

The sodium-ion battery-powered forklift.

The sodium-ion battery-powered forklift. Image used courtesy of Komatsu

 

Initial job site testing is underway to validate the sodium-ion technology's performance and feasibility for future series production. If Komatsu's sodium-ion battery-powered forklift can nearly match the performance of lithium-ion machines at a minimal premium over lead-acid units, a transition to sodium-ion exclusively could be economically beneficial, offering an affordable yet versatile solution for all customers. 

The program is specifically tailored to accommodate Komatsu's current lineup of 1.5-ton electric forklifts, which will move toward mass production in 2024.

 

Powering Progress With Sodium

Komatsu's foray into sodium-ion battery technology marks a new era in material handling, promising safer, more cost-effective solutions. Focusing on leveraging the abundance and affordability of sodium-based materials, Komatsu aims to change industry trends by offering forklifts that prioritize safety without sacrificing performance.