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A mythbusters guide to lithium batteries

29 April 2024

Over the last few years, Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) batteries have gained popularity as an alternative to Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) and more traditional lead-acid batteries in a wide range of applications, including materials handling equipment - each bringing its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

AS WE navigate through the application of this technology within the operations of the customers we partner with, we have been challenged with a number of valid concerns surrounding operational stability and their overall impact on the environment so we’re working to help inform businesses about the primary differences between the technologies and what they should consider when choosing the right option for their application.

Here are some of the common objections we face when proposing lithium battery technology to the customers we work with:

“Lithium batteries are highly flammable”

High amongst considerations and rightly so, is the overall safety of the batteries being used with one common pre-conception being around flammability. When compared to the well-established lead acid technology where fires are not generally a concern due to their differing chemistry and construction, it has been highly recognised that NMC batteries are responsible for this concern due to the fire risk that comes with them. 

So why do NMC batteries pose this risk? In truth, there are a number of reasons which come with any battery technology and good battery management should be adhered to at all times but one key characteristic with NMC when comparing to LFP is the difference in thermal runaway.  Thermal runaway occurs in NMC batteries when the internal temperature of the battery rises uncontrollably, leading to the breakdown of the electrolyte and the release of flammable gases which can ignite the battery, causing it to catch fire or even explode.

This is not the case with LFP batteries which are considered safer due to their higher thermal runaway temperature, meaning that they are less likely to overheat and catch fire or explode even when crushed or pierced.

“Our insurance company won’t cover the use of lithium”

Because of the relative infancy of lithium use in materials handling equipment, there is some caution being executed by insurers largely due to uncertainties surrounding the technology, potential fire risks and to a lesser extent associated costs in replacing the battery.

In the event of a fire and contrary to peoples understanding, evidence has shown that the key to successful extinguishing of a lithium battery fire is similar to that of a lead acid fire. It may be useful for companies to know that the Fire Industry Association (FIA) will work with them on assessing the issues related to the use of lithium-ion batteries, how fires start and how they can be detected, controlled, supressed and extinguished. 

Whilst battery manufacturers do introduce safety devices/controls and fire suppression systems that aim to detect abnormal conditions developing and shutting down the battery before it gets to thermal runaway, operations must remain vigilant.

“We have considered lithium, but it’s too expensive for us”

Yes, until recent years, lithium technology has been benchmarked as the more expensive option of batteries on offer. As technologies become commonplace and more widely used, the price has decreased substantially but it is fair to say that when considering electric, lead acid does fair more cost effective. To this end, it is important that we as solution partners evaluate a number of factors when considering the most appropriate technology for our customers.

When comparing LFP to NMC where the initial cost may be higher, their longer lifespan and lower maintenance requirements often result in a lower cost of ownership over the battery's lifetime. This makes them more economical in the long run, especially for applications that demand durability and reliability.

“Lithium is for high use application and not suitable for us”

Not the case. While LFP forklifts may offer significant benefits in high-use applications where uptime and productivity are critical, their efficiency, longevity and safety features make them suitable for a wide range of usage scenarios, including low to moderate use environments. 

That coupled with the ability to opportunity charge without damaging the battery and the concept of maintenance and hassle-free motoring, the decision to adopt LFP forklifts is becoming much more of an obvious one to make for businesses. Ultimately, the decision to adopt LFP forklifts depends on many factors such as operational needs, budget considerations, and the long-term objectives for the fleet.

“We don’t know much about lithium battery’s overall impact on the environment”

Overall, LFP batteries are considered a relatively environmentally friendly option among lithium-ion battery technologies. They produce zero tailpipe emissions during operation, and when powered by renewable energy sources can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to IC trucks, contributing to improved air quality and mitigating climate change. 

However, it's essential to consider the entire lifecycle of the batteries, including raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, and end-of-life disposal or recycling, to accurately assess their environmental impact. 

We are working with partners to set up a robust recycling infrastructure and widely promote sustainable battery manufacturing practices which for us is a key role of ours to play within the supply chain. It is our obligation to promote education and awareness about the importance of proper battery disposal and recycling among consumers, businesses, and stakeholders. Encourage responsible disposal practices and provide information about available recycling options and resources.

Overall, there are a number of steps that we take with the businesses we partner with – assessment of requirements, performance and cost implications along with infrastructure and safety features enable us to look at the range of products that are available. 

The key for us is to test, trial and offer demo units so that customers can see first-hand what the operational impact will be; overlay this with a lifetime cost analysis and a robust service offering, decisions can and should be informed and should be made through consultation with businesses such as Windsor Materials Handling.

For more information, visit https://windsor-mh.co.uk