Traditionally dependent on fossil fuels to run key equipment, mining is known as a carbon-intensive industry. New trends, such as battery-powered underground mining equipment, are promising to disrupt that paradigm.
Increasingly, stakeholders are demanding that mining companies be more responsible and sustainable. Companies are being pressured by stockholders, workers, local communities, consumers and governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce carbon footprints, improve air quality and protect the health and safety of workers and people living near mines. Meanwhile, others in the mining value chain — such as jewelers, electronics companies, or automakers — want assurances that the minerals they’re buying are mined responsibly.
With this as a backdrop, battery-powered underground mining equipment is starting to replace vehicles with diesel engines and equipment with electric motors is starting to replace those using hydraulics.
As stated in a 2020 article in Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration:
Though the transition to electric mining equipment has been relatively slow, it is difficult to think of the mining industry of the future still depending on fossil fuels. The shift to cleaner sources of energy is global: industries and governments across the world are implementing renewable energy source strategies and policies, regulations are becoming stricter and social scrutiny harder. Electromobility has arrived to stay and the mining industry is not excluded from its influence.
—Felipe Sánchez and Philipp Hartlieb
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There are other reasons why the switch to electric mining equipment makes sense for many mining operations.
One, for instance, is the competitiveness of the industry and the increasing need for miners and equipment to go ever deeper into the earth to extract more minerals. It follows that the deeper a mine, the more ventilation infrastructure is needed to help vent diesel emissions and keep workers safe. According to one estimate, up to 30% of an underground mine’s total operating costs go toward powering ventilation systems to maintain air quality.
At some point, it becomes much less cost-effective for such operations to continue using diesel ICE — even equipment that is designed to comply with current Environmental Protection Agency emission standards — in these applications.
Surface mining operations aren’t totally immune from these pressures either. Diesel-powered machines used in these operations must adhere to the same environmental regulation as construction and agricultural equipment.
Many mining OEMs are taking advantage of the opportunities created by this trend. Atlas Copco® and Epiroc, for instance, offers a range of BEV, zero-emission mining machines, including the Scooptram® ST7, the Electric Boomer M2C and smaller truck models.
Sandvik® Artisan®, meanwhile, offers its Z50 mining truck, powered by lithium-ion batteries. It boasts three times more power than a diesel, and the capability to haul 50 tons of material. It also features regenerative braking and an automated battery swap system that can “refuel” the vehicle in about 10 minutes.
There are many challenges to the widespread shift to electrification in mining. According to a 2019 report by EY on the subject, electrification requires mining personnel to adopt some different skills, such as data and digital literacy and technical planning. In some cases, mine design needs to be rethought for better optimization of electric mining equipment.
On the engineering side, battery technology and recharging are ongoing challenges. The current industry standard is the use of large, diesel-powered generators to do the job. But as these generators are highly polluting, their use tends to defeat at least some of the purpose of the shift to electric mining vehicles. Several solutions are emerging to reduce or eliminate this reliance on diesel, including renewable energy projects at mines, hydrogen power generators for recharging and diesel generators that run more efficiently.
Mining is traditionally a very carbon-dependent industry, with heavy reliance on diesel ICE to power its equipment. That reliance may be starting to change, however, driven by pressure from stakeholders to reduce carbon footprints and protect workers and communities, along with new economic pressures derived from the need to mine farther underground. Already, major OEMs are providing electric mining equipment. As new options for charging these large batteries — including renewable resources — become more widespread, expect to see a cleaner, greener, safer future of mining.
To learn more about trends in the Mining industry, read our Off-Road Trends: Driving Cleaner, More Efficient and Connected Machinery.
This article was contributed by Parker's Electromechanical Team.
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