Innovation in GSE, part 1: lithium-ion battery technology

posted on 12th September 2022
Innovation in GSE, part 1:  lithium-ion battery technology

GSE power is undergoing a revolution rather than an evolution. Ever more efficient and cost-effective battery technologies are being developed, while new options such as hydrogen fuel cells are also looking like they might be a more than viable alternative in the not too distant future. Airside met with a couple of the battery power innovators to understand the value that these new, green options offer

Gerry Hoadley, director of ground support equipment business at Waev Inc, an electric mobility provider established in 2021 to manufacture, distribute, market and support the GEM, Taylor-Dunn and Tiger GSE brands, was directly involved in the development of the fully electric, lithium-ion powered Tiger tow tractor before he joined the Waev team.
He believes that the development of electric vehicles in the GSE space has reached “a critical tipping point”, and notes that airline emission mandates are progressing and lithium power sources can help meet those mandates without sacrificing performance.
Indeed, he opines: “Lithium technology changes the entire game with zero emissions, limited maintenance and a significantly lower total cost of ownership (TCO). We expect to see the broader adoption of lithium-powered GSE, specifically tugs, tractors and burden carriers like our Tiger and Bigfoot Li-ion vehicles. We believe in the value of this technology.”
Waev is playing its part in the further advancement of electrification technology for GSE applications by developing fully integrated vehicle solutions and lithium power modules tailored to specific vehicles. “By fully integrating lithium batteries into our power modules and vehicles on the production line, we can optimise the vehicle’s operation and maximise the benefits of the technology,” Hoadley observes.
“We follow electrification technology closely and partner with suppliers that can help us meet the challenges our customers face. For the launch of our lithium-powered Tiger and Bigfoot vehicles, we identified a battery solution with a very stable chemistry, which provides enhanced safety over other compositions of lithium battery technology.”

The Tiger roars
According to Hoadley, “The Tiger Li-ion vehicle offers uncompromised range, towing and hauling, and has familiar user controls for an easy operation with all the benefits of electrification.”
In comparison to a diesel vehicle: “There is virtually no difference for operators themselves, while the operation as a whole reaps the benefits of zero emissions, zero fuel expenses, limited maintenance and a significantly lower total cost of ownership. This brings unprecedented value to the GSE market.”
And Hoadley believes that the transition to electric GSE is now so much easier than it was in the past. “Traditional barriers to adopting electrification in GSE have now been eliminated,” he says. “Tiger Li-ion tow tractors don’t require special charging infrastructure; drivers don’t need to be retrained on the operation of an entirely new vehicle; and the day-to-day operation schedule isn’t restricted by inconvenient charging times.
“Lithium-powered vehicles can be ‘opportunity charged’ – meaning topped up anytime – or fully discharged without damaging the life of the vehicle. The batteries themselves have the capacity for a full day of operation and the familiarity and similarities between Tiger tugs and traditional diesel-powered tugs helps in the transition to all-electric GSE.”
Is hydrogen fuel cell technology a viable alternative to Li-ion? Well, not today, Hoadley suggests. “We’ve been manufacturing electric vehicles for more than 70 years and we have a deep understanding of the needs and requirements of industrial and commercial applications, and we won’t repower a vehicle with the latest and greatest technology unless it provides our customers with significant advantages. We don’t see that currently out of hydrogen, but that’s not to say it couldn’t get there.”
He continues: “Our customers have the same mentality – they aren’t going to switch to lithium-powered tugs, tow tractors and burden carriers if there isn’t real value.”
The Tiger and Bigfoot Li-ion tug, tow tractors and burden carriers fully integrate the latest lithium technology, and thereby offer customers increased sustainability, enhanced safety, extended battery life and health, options for charging (standard 110V outlet, on-board charging and off-board fast-charging), zero battery maintenance, extended range and efficiency for all-day and multi-day operation, cold-weather capability and a lower total cost of ownership – pretty much everything they might need, Hoadley would argue.
“Li-ion vehicles save time and money because there aren’t ongoing costs – routine maintenance, install labour, annual battery replacements or opportunity costs. GSE customers that purchase Tiger Li-ion tow tractors could see annual savings of up to 80% compared to traditional fuel tractors. And GSE customers purchasing Bigfoot Li-ion burden carriers could see more than US$10,000 in battery lifetime savings.
“For GSE operators looking to maximise their uptime, lower TCO and improve ROI [return on investment], lithium is the optimal choice,” he concludes.

Green Cubes Technology: safe and reliable Li-ion solutions
Hoadley explains that Waev “specifically selected a chemistry (LiFePO4) that is stable, making it inherently safer; it also doesn’t need to be heated or cooled to maintain its stability so the vehicle as a whole is simplified”.
Other alternatives are available though, just as there are electric battery options other than Li-ion. US-based Green Cubes Technology designs and develops safe and reliable lithium-based electrification solutions for a range of industrial applications; it, too, is a fan of LiFePO4.
Within the aviation sector, it offers lithium-based power systems for GSE as an alternative to both diesel engines and lead acid battery systems. Jerry Crump, the company’s director of business development for GSE, explains that in relation to the electrification of GSE, there are currently two competing battery types: the more traditional lead acid option and Li-ion options.
Li-ion batteries rely on lithium nickel manganese cobalt (known as NMC) chemistry or lithium iron phosphate (LFP) chemistry. The latter is synonymous with LiFePO4. NMC has better energy density (being of lighter weight, smaller size and having long runtimes), while LiFePO4/LFP has longer cycle life, higher power delivery and better safety, he says.
But LFP is the best match of attributes for GSE because it is extremely safe for ramp operations and does not require any specialised procedures or safety equipment, Crump opines. And it is LFP Li-ion that Green Cubes offers to the GSE market.
Most GSE applications were already designed to have a certain weight associated with lead acid batteries or an internal combustion engine, so having a battery that is a little heavier does not hurt the design as much as it would for an electric car, he asserts. In fact, in some applications ballast is either added to the LFP battery or the vehicle to ensure that the vehicle has the proper weight.
Lead acid was the lead-in product for eGSE, and is still a viable technology, he believes, despite the many drawbacks it has compared to LFP. Hybrid systems can also be found in many markets. Plus, hydrogen fuel cells have been marketed to GSE suppliers or operators for many years, but – says Crump – there is no readily available infrastructure yet to support this alternative, so the up-front cost is generally high.
“Very long term, we expect a mix of fuel cells and Li-ion batteries, in the same way that lead acid and internal combustion engines have complemented each other. LFP is less common than NMC, but it is not an immature or rare chemistry. In countries that are further along in the adoption of Li-ion, LFP is often used in large motive applications like electric buses.
“We guide our cell suppliers on the unique requirements of GSE equipment, since the formulation and design of the cell can be manipulated for improved performance – temperature ranges and power output, for example,” Crump confirms.
The challenges of using Li-ion for GSE apron operations
“The challenges that we face on the ramp are similar for every airport,” says Crump. “Most of these challenges revolve around making infrastructure available that meets the needs of the operation. LFP helps to solve that challenge by allowing high rates of fast charging, and the ability to use more of the rated capacity without voltage drop-off.”
LFP has a very flat voltage curve, allowing eGSE to operate almost to full depletion before a performance decline is experienced, he says. This allows for the same performance of the eGSE even if the state of charge is as low as 10%. LFP-powered eGSE can run longer and LFP also has a greater ability to discharge current without a change in voltage for applications that are power-intensive, such as lifting cargo or starting the movement of an aircraft in a pushback operation. This allows for batteries that can be sized based upon the runtime, rather than having to be oversized to allow for high power spikes, Crump suggests.
As for the relative cost and economic value of Li-ion, there are several things to take into consideration when looking at LFP costs. While the upfront investment in an LFP battery is more than that of a lead acid battery, the former has double the life expectancy compared to the latter, he says, thereby making the TCO of an LFP battery actually much less than that of a lead acid one.
LFP batteries are also the closest option available today for a maintenance-free battery in GSE, Crump continues. It is not always easy to track the cost of a lead acid battery’s maintenance through its life cycle, since it is not uncommon for different personnel to be assigned the tasks of watering and other maintenance functions. Moreover, sometimes a lead acid battery will be sent out for cell replacement, and that cost can be lost in the GSE operational costs.
“All of these costs must be factored into the TCO,” Crump observes. Other costs that can be associated with LFP revolve around the application of the equipment powered by battery technology. If the GSE asset was designed around lead acid, it might be necessary to add ballast into the battery or into the GSE asset to ensure that the equipment is able to meet its design requirements.
Weight has energy consumption implications, as well as creating wear and tear on items such as tyres and suspension, so a lighter battery without the need for ballast would always be the preference. Another advantage of LFP is that it has a higher discharge rate than lead acid, Crump points out, so LFP does not generate as much heat in the electrical system as lead acid performing the same operation.
This can cause less wear and tear on the electrical system, and increase component longevity.
Green Cubes Technology has sold LFP batteries to numerous GSE user customers, as well as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Says Crump: “As we see LFP as the best option for powering eGSE, we are marketing our products to every customer: whether they are an OEM looking to develop new GSE or repowering a formerly designed lead acid GSE design, or a fleet manager looking to increase uptime and reliability in their fleet while lowering operating costs.
“These applications can include full CAN [controlled area network] integration or just a lead acid replacement with our battery gauge installed in place of the former lead acid gauge.”