Historically there is little love lost between the mining industry and green groups. However, the two may now have some common ground in the pursuit of better EV technology and a broader rollout across Australia.
ELECTRIC VEHICLES: Australia’s resource industry is well positioned to benefit from the EV revolution, having a wealth of nickel, copper, lithium and other elements required to power the battery transition.
However, the industry is also in the process of electrifying its own operations, with many of the world’s largest miners including BHP and Rio Tinto targeting net zero scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050.
Richard Fenton, vice president of global distributed energy systems at engineering consultancy Worley, estimates displacing diesel from a mining fleet can remove up to 40 per cent of a site’s emissions.
Beyond just meeting stakeholder pressure to decarbonise, electrification of mining also cuts down on fuel costs, improves health and safety and reduces the need for manpower in increasingly remote locations.
Technology already exists for mining companies to begin making the transition, but is still in the process of becoming powerful enough to meet the robust demands of one of the heaviest industry sectors in the world.
While government funding being directed to mining companies has proved controversial, some of the funding has gone to projects that may ultimately be used to improve residential power grids, or off-grid applications such as remote communities or EV charging stations.
Included in a recent round of federal funding to the mining industry, worth almost $50 million, was Australian Vanadium Ltd in WA, taking $3.9 million to fast-track manufacturing of large-scale vanadium redox flow battery systems and Elphinstone in Tasmania which received $5.1 million to develop a range of battery-powered underground mining support vehicles.
Australia has a potent mix of highly skilled engineers and academic institutions, alongside demand from commercial industries extending beyond mining to farming, forestry and construction.
Australia primed for innovation
Stephane Marouani, country manager at software company MathWorks is working with a range of engineers and developers in Australia to create better EV technology for mining and other industries.
“We see the demand and innovation in terms of commercial electric vehicles that are really well suited for some of our largest industries,” Stephane said.
With the potential to make a lot of money for those that meet the needs of billion dollar industries first, startups are taking a range of approaches from developing new EVs from the ground up, to retrofitting and hybrid solutions.
One of those is Bendigo-based company Safescape, which initially created safety escape routes for miners. It’s now branching out into the EV space with an all-electric ute, specifically designed for the mining industry.
Software integration engineer at the company Brendan Jones, explained conventional vehicles were not well suited to mining, foremost because of the fumes they create that can become deadly in confined spaces and need to be ventilated out.
Also, the conditions of minework leads to higher amounts of wear and tear and often vehicles are scrapped after just three years in the field, he said.
“It’s a very hot, humid, salty environment so it tends to rust the vehicles out very, very quickly,” Mr Jones explained.
The result is a heavy duty electric 4WD, designed to be hardier and require less maintenance than other all-terrain vehicles in the market, including Ford’s recently launched utility vehicle, the F-150 Lightning.
Integrated into the vehicle is a lithium-ion battery developed specifically for the mining industry by another Australian company, 3ME Technology.
Mr Jones said in many cases Australia’s resource sector had been slow to adopt new technologies, however in this case, industry interest and funding were driving projects and companies like his forward, and helping create innovation in the EV space overall.
He said data and analytics created in an upcoming limited rollout of the vehicles among partner companies in the mining industry would make use of Mathwork’s MATLAB and Simulink software to fine tune the vehicles and help find solutions to issues with the system, such as range.
Leading the charge
The opportunities for electrification across the mining industry are vast and developing quickly.
In a recent report, Richard Fenton advocated a three-pronged approach for mining companies to steer away from diesel over the coming decades as new technologies emerge, being first reduction, then replacement, and finally elimination.
He said that in the first step companies need to assess their whole range of diesel powered equipment, from drilling rigs and large trucks to bucket excavators and loaders,” as well as, “ancillary equipment like bulldozers, water trucks and graders.”
Between 2030 and 2040, he estimates there will be viable options to remove diesel engines and their cooling systems from heavy mine vehicles and replace them with batteries.
“A battery for that size and scale will need to be 1.5 to 1.6 megawatt (MW) hours. While batteries in trucks and road vehicles are currently up to 1 MW (1000 kWh) hour, they’re still not small or powerful enough to fit in mining haul trucks,” Mr Fenton said.
Other solutions currently being looked at are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, electrically powered trolley assist systems, wireless charging options and more.
Earlier this year, three industry giants, BHP, Rio Tinto and Vale, co-launched a global competition for technology innovators to develop new concepts for large-scale haul truck electrification systems.
The competition mandates developing breakthrough technologies, capable of charging giant trucks weighing hundreds of tonnes, quickly and efficiently.
It’s not too difficult to imagine that the research going into meeting the needs of the mining industry and delivering better outcomes there, may also bleed across a range of other heavy industry and manufacturing sectors and one day perhaps into our own garages too.
Often in Australia it seems what the mining industry wants, the mining industry gets. This time around it may actually benefit the planet too.