Sodium-ion batteries put to the test in Komatsu pilot program

This electric forklift concept by Japanese equipment giant Komatsu is powered by sodium-ion batteries and promises safer, cheaper operation than the competition.

Sodium-ion batteries have been hailed as a possible alternative to more expensive lithium-ion batteries for a while, and have shown enough promise that EV leaders like BYD and Volkswagen-backed JAC have already spent big money developing the technology. Not to be outdone by the on-road guys, Komatsu recently unveiled this concept electric forklift powered by sodium-ion batteries as part of a pilot program to validate the use of sodium batteries with an eye toward series production in the near future.

For the uninitiated, sodium batteries are believed to offer a significant cost savings compared to “conventional” li-ion batteries, thanks to the abundance and affordability of sodium-based materials (among other things). Additionally, sodium-ion batteries are believed to be safer than li-ion because their natural properties present a reduced risk of thermal runaway (again, compared to li-ion), potentially making them a better choice for applications that prioritize safety over overall performance or energy density. School buses are one example of an application where safety might trump performance. Material handling is another, and material handling is all about forklifts.

Sodium is perfect for forklifts

It’s important to understand that Komatsu isn’t comparing its new sodium concept against lithium ion tech, the way a car manufacturer focused on maximum energy density might. Instead, it’s comparing the idea of a single battery technology instead of its current two. Those being li-ion for extended, heavy-load operations, and old-school lead-acid batteries for the majority of their customers.

If Komatsu’s new sodium-ion battery-equipped electric forklift can do almost as much work as the li-ion machines, at a small enough premium to the lead-acid units, then it might make sense to go all-sodium, all-the time, and leverage the economies of scale therein to offer one machine to customers that can do it all.

The concept is equipped with a sodium-ion battery pack developed by Shanghai Hirano Environment Technology Co., Ltd., using sodium-ion battery cells manufactured by Jiangsu Highstar Battery Manufacturing Co., Ltd. and is designed to fit Komatsu’s existing 1.5-ton class electric forklifts. The concept machine has already begin jobsite testing.

Electrek’s Take

Electric forklifts are the gateway drug of commercial electrification. They’re proven, capable, cost less to own and operate than their internal combustion cousins, and get the job done. Once fleet managers make that connection, the decision to electrify the rest of their equipment assets is already made. If Komatsu can make that decision cheaper while addressing the fleet’s safety concerns (however misguided those concerns may be), they’ll have a winner.

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