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Alternative Fuel Solutions

Filed under: Technology

As eco-friendly and sustainable solutions are becoming an important topic, a variety of alternate power solutions are emerging that address the current needs for greater fuel efficiency and increased environmental stewardship.

With more alternative fuel and hybrid options emerging it is becoming difficult to keep up with the benefits and challenges each one entails. Below we will examine a number of alternative fuel sources that are making their way into the materials handling industry. 

Fuel Cell Technology

What is it and what are the benefits and challenges?

Fuel cell: “An electrochemical cell in which the energy of a reaction between a fuel, such as liquid hydrogen, and an oxidant, such as liquid oxygen, is converted directly and continuously into electrical energy.”

For forklifts, fuel cell technology is expanding and has been extremely successful for operations which have implemented the technology into their forklift fleets Class I, II and III applications.

Fuel cell technology is most effective in high volume applications where there is a need for a high number of battery changes, using valuable time and labour.


• The fuel cell replaces the battery and acts as a battery that can be quickly refilled. Providing an operating environment with zero pollutant emissions and relatively low noise.
• Fuel cells create their own energy, opposed to batteries which have to be recharged.
• Fuel cell forklifts can typically operate two or three times as long as battery powered forklifts.
• Refuelling only takes 3-10 minutes.


• Significant upfront cost to switching to fuel cell powered forklifts.
• Equipment is needed to compress, store and dispense the hydrogen fuel to the forklifts.
• Cost of the fuel cells is high, much more than multiple batteries and a charger.

Fuel cell technology works best for large fleets of at least 30 forklifts to spread out the cost of the infrastructure. As technology progresses and the corresponding power generated increases, fuel cell forklifts may enter more applications in the material handling industry. 

picture of hyster fuel cell technology

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

What is it and what are the benefits and challenges?

Compressed Natural Gas: “Stored in a high pressure container it is used mainly as an alternative fuel for internal combustion engines. It generates low hydrocarbon emissions, but a significant quantity of nitrogen oxide emissions.”


• Lower fuel costs against traditional ICE fuel options.
• The domestic availability of natural gas is relatively high, resulting in less price fluctuation or instability.
• Burns cleaner than LPG or diesel.


• The capital expense to cover the increased cost of the actual CNG-equipped forklifts from the manufacturer can be overwhelming.
• Can be limited in the class and applications they are able to operate in.
• Tanks cannot be exchanged on forklifts, making refuelling difficult.
• Rearward visibility of the operator might also be impacted by the large fuel tank.

Hyster CNG forklifts

Hybrid Technology

What is it and what are the benefits and challenges?

There are two categories of hybrid technology in regards to forklifts:

1. Direct Drive Hybrid Technology:

involves installing an electric motor in a direct drive mode between the engine and the transmission. The motor then provides the engine the ability to not only shut down at traffic stops but also to easily restart when the accelerator is applied. The ability for the engine to shut down combined with the comparatively smaller engine may improve the overall vehicle fuel economy.

Graph of direct drive tehcnology

2. Non Direct Drive Hybrid Technology:

involves the electric motor being installed in the driveline, but this time not as a direct drive with the engine. It yields a higher level of efficiency when compared to the former approach. However, the complexity of the system can cause problems and has a higher cost associated with it than the more simplistic direct drive approach.

Graph of non-direct drive technology


• While hybrid technology is eco-friendly, hybrids must still answer the forklift value proposition that is different and more nuanced than the auto industry.
• For the auto industry, hybrid technology’s primary focus is on the improvement of fuel economy when the engine is running very light loads. By contrast electric forklift operations have the benefit of high fuel efficiency. In most cases, the primary focus for forklifts is the ability to operate electric forklifts without the need for battery changes. The forklifts can be equipped with a small engine that drives a generator to keep the battery charged.
• Hybrid forklifts still require an internal combustion engine. Even with less use the forklift requires maintenance of the engine, along with that of the electric motor.

Ultimately, the long-term maintenance cost associated with a complex hybrid system should be weighed against the potential fuel economy improvements.

The below graph examines where alternative fuel options work.

Graph of alternative fuel solutions and where they work

While ICE and electric battery-powered forklifts remain the most cost-effective solutions for a majority of material handling applications, companies should always be investigating, testing and evaluating new methods and technologies to potentially reduce their operating costs and their impact on the environment. By understanding the various new technologies and their strengths and weaknesses, businesses will be able to better analyse their operations and potential solutions for their material handling needs.

Which alternative fuel option do you think will have the biggest impact on the materials handling industry in the future?


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