BEVs emerge from underground
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government’s zero emission vehicle incentive would be extended to mining fleets at last year’s PDAC convention in Toronto, he made sure to mention two Ontario companies – MacLean Engineering and Kovatera – that supplied battery electric equipment to Newmont’s Borden mine in Ontario, the country’s first all-electric mine.
But one name was missing from Trudeau’s made-in-Canada battery-electric roll call – MEDATech.
“What he failed to say was both those companies are using our AltDrive technology,” says MEDATech’s president, Robert Rennie.
MEDATech (which stands for mobile equipment design automation technology) developed its fully electric AltDrive powertrain technology more than a decade ago, and over the last five years, the Collingwood-based company has become a key partner for OEMs looking to electrify. In addition to supplying them with its AltDrive technology, MEDATech has assisted other companies with the integration of battery power and drive train components, and provided sophisticated vehicle management software for BEVs.
Although MEDATech has been on the cutting edge of recent mining equipment innovation in Ontario (including helping Torex Resources engineer and develop its proprietary Muckahi technology, the brainchild of former CEO Fred Stanford), as a behind-the-scenes provider of components and engineering knowledge to other OEMs, the company has remained out of the spotlight.
That is, until now.
That’s because MEDATech has developed, in partnership with ABB and Western Star, the first heavy duty battery electric truck for surface mining to hit the North American market. A diesel-to-battery battery conversion of the Western Star 4900XD, the first truck retrofit was completed in December. Configured with a dump box for open pit mining haulage, the truck has a capacity of 24 tonnes, but it could also be used to run a mobile crane or as a water truck.
With a focus on service trucks, MEDATech is aiming to move the needle on electrification, beyond the light vehicles and underground mobile equipment that now available as BEVs.
By retrofitting an existing diesel truck with electric components, MEDATech will be one of the first to market with such a truck.
While the vehicle is not yet commercially available, a key step toward that is coming in March. That’s when ABB – which has a decade of experience in developing fast-charging systems – will deliver a quick-charge system that will make the truck a much more attractive option for mining operations.
The story of this new electric vehicle began several years ago, when Nouveau Monde approached MEDATech for help in defining a path to becoming fully electric.
The junior was trying to advance its Matawinie graphite project in Quebec as Canada’s first all-electric open pit mine. However, the electric rock trucks Nouveau Monde needed didn’t yet exist.
MEDATech and ABB agreed to help Nouveau Monde in fleshing out its plans for an electric fleet, contributing to the company’s 2018 feasibility study for Matawinie. (Nouveau Monde is now working with a province-led electrification initiative that includes Propulsion Quebec to develop and test conversions of diesel trucks for the operation.)
During that process, Rennie spoke to a number of OEMs about developing a battery electric surface haul truck, but came up empty.
“No one really wanted to talk to us four years ago,” he said. “For most companies, it wasn’t on their radar for surface hauling.” While the benefits of using BEVs in underground mining – eliminating diesel emissions and carcinogens, and saving on ventilation costs – were compelling and immediate, the benefits to applying the technology in surface operations were less obvious.
Then Rennie connected with Western Star, a company owned by Daimler, which happened to have a surface hauling vehicle suitable for conversion.
Through the company, MEDATech also found an eager partner in Quebec-based Western Star dealer Tardif, which is keen on driving the program from the Western Star side.
Applying its experience in retrofitting underground diesel vehicles with its AltDrive technology to the 4900XD, MEDATech completed the first retrofit in December.
“This drive train is the same drive train we have built 30, 45 times now between the MacLean and Kovaterra products,” Rennie says. “The difference in this is we have installed much more battery in this truck, but the AltDrive system is exactly the same.”
While at the moment, it can only be conventionally charged, Rennie says the truck has performed well in initial tests. “We’re quite happy with the product.”
The truck is powerful. Its AltDrive system is configured to continuously output almost double the torque of the original diesel engine.
“We can go faster and haul more payload every time with an electric drive train when you make a horsepower to horsepower comparison, strictly because of the higher torques of electric motors and the much improved efficiency,” Rennie says.
With a 150-kW onboard charger built specifically for MEDATech, the batteries can be charged in about 2.5 hours from fully drained. However, things will really get interesting in March, when ABB’s quick-charging system is delivered.
“The real differentiating factor on this truck is it will be the first commercially available truck with an ultra-fast charging system,” Rennie adds.
The lithium-ion battery chemistry can accept a high charge rate (or C-rate) of 5-10 C’s, as opposed to 1-2 C’s, the norm today for lithium-ion bateries.
The quick-charge capability means 380 kW of power can be delivered to the battery in just 12 minutes.
However, that comes with a caveat – you can’t wait until the battery is dead to charge it. “We have to keep the battery in a certain specific sweet spot, or state of charge,” Rennie explains. “All this is very highly engineered and according to the duty cycle or the work cycle that the vehicle is expected to do.”
Moreover, the company says that research shows fast-charging will be more efficient than battery-swapping in terms of both costs and logistics. (A paper coauthored by MEDATech and McMaster University, available on MEDATech’s website, for example, demonstrated that in an underground scenario, costs of battery swapping over a five-year period were up to 65% higher.)
Fast charging is a critical feature to make battery electric technology viable for industrial fleets, which, unlike your average Tesla, operate 24/7. ABB was a natural partner to supply a quick-charging system as the company already has fast-charging stations up to 450 KW widely available for buses, both in North America and Europe.
“A heavy equipment fast-charging system will be built to fit challenging environmental mining site conditions and allow for minimized charging times,” says Nic Beutler, global product manager for power systems and infrastructure solutions at ABB. “It will be the next evolution in fast charging.”
Key features of the system include: safe operation through improved connection and charging process, charging that matches the rhythm of mining operations, open standards for interoperability across vehicle types, and intelligent planning and management for optimum grid design, Beutler adds.
Pathway to electrification
Rennie readily admits that the big drawback to retrofitting a vehicle rather than building it from scratch as a BEV is the expense. The electric version of the 4900XD is double the cost of the diesel truck, he says. But such vehicles are what miners need to test electric equipment at their sites and begin the transition toward BEVs.
“Conversions are a pathway to trialling an electric version of the vehicle when it’s not available,” he notes.
That said, Rennie anticipates that costs will come down as Western Star begins to send trucks to MEDATech in a configuration specifically meant for installation of the battery components, without the diesel engine.
In addition, the cost comparison with diesel machines looks a lot better when you consider the longer machine life of electric vehicles, lower maintenance costs that come with fewer moving parts in an electric drive train, and fuel savings.
“When you buy a battery system, you’re buying way more than just a motor and a bunch of electronics and a battery. You’re actually prepaying for all your fuel.”
With the growing pressure on miners to reduce their carbon intensity, it’s no wonder the company is seeing interest from companies wanting to test the truck, including Anglo American.
The truck will soon be available to Tardif clients in Quebec for testing.