Harnessing hydrogen: Miners explore the use of hydrogen-powered haul trucks
With pressure on the global mining industry to decarbonize, and Canada’s mining industry consuming 2 billion litres of diesel annually, mining companies are looking at reducing their carbon emissions and their energy costs through the use of green hydrogen.
Large haul trucks can represent more than 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions of an operation’s total surface mobile fleet. According to a May 2021 report by Hatch, On the Path to Zero Emissions, reducing those emissions is a big reason why miners are considering the use of green hydrogen in mining. Green hydrogen is made from renewable energy, typically wind or solar, and produces zero carbon emissions. However, industry faces many barriers before it can fully implement this new technology into their operations.
The benefits of hydrogen
Although hydrogen fuel cell technology is still considered in its infancy, global and Canadian mining companies are currently investigating the potential of using hydrogen-powered haulers in their mining operations.
“Given the current outlook on decarbonization pathways to achieve zero-
emission large haulers for mining operations, the clearest technology option in replacing diesel-powered, ultra-class haul trucks is the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology,” says Michael Bobotis, engineering coordinator, Open Pit Mining North America, at Hatch.
“As renewable power in the form of green hydrogen continues to become more available and decreases in cost, the benefits of green hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks will eventually be two-fold: providing a truly zero-emission vehicle similar in performance and range to current ultra-class trucks, and facilitating a similar operating paradigm to current large-scale operations. Productivity at any mining operation is key, and introducing equipment that causes minimal disruption to future mining operations is vital to the industry as a whole,” says Bobotis.
Large multi-national mining companies and suppliers are working on hydrogen solutions. The most public effort in this space is Anglo American’s partnership with ENGIE SA, established in October 2019. Together, the world’s largest producer of platinum and the multi-national energy services company are working to develop and fuel the world’s largest hydrogen-powered mine haul truck. This project is part of Anglo American’s approach to sustainable mining, FutureSmart Mining, which will help the company meet its carbon and energy targets for 2030 and its vision of operating carbon-neutral mines.
Anglo American will develop the truck and ENGIE will provide the hydrogen generation solutions. This project marks the first time a truck of this size and load capacity has been converted to run on hydrogen.
In an October 2019 release, Anglo said that “first motion” of the hydrogen powered truck – meaning the first time the truck will be able to move self-propelled by its new power plant system – was expected in 2020. After that, the plan is to conduct a validation program at the company’s Mogalakwena platinum group metals mine in South Africa, followed by depoloyment of the trucks at other Anglo American operations.
“Operational performance of the converted trucks is expected to be the same or better than the original diesel trucks, with the additional benefits of cleaner air, less noise and lower maintenance costs,” the company said.
As of mid-2021, the truck is not yet in operation. However, its power plant module is in the final testing stages in the United States where it was engineered, developed and built. After that’s completed, it will be shipped to South Africa for integration into the truck later this year.
The construction work for the demonstration facility at the Mogalakwena mine includes a 3.5-MW (700 NM/h) electrolyzer to produce hydrogen on site. Construction is in the final stages with first production of hydrogen expected before the end of 2021. The proof of concept of the entire system – hydrogen production, refuelling, operation of the truck – is expected to run for six months. After that time, first results will be reviewed.
ENGIE is working toward becoming a world leader in the development of an industrial-scale hydrogen economy to help its customers transition to zero-carbon emissions. “Our aim is to support the industrial and heavy-duty mobility players worldwide to reach their carbon-neutrality objectives,” says Consuelo Glaria Lopez, Hydrogen Solutions Developer, BU Hydrogen at ENGIE. “Our target for green hydrogen production is 4 GW by 2030. This is concrete now as we already have a portfolio of 70 projects; 20 of those projects have an installed capacity of electrolysis equal to or greater than 50 MW.”
Two years ago, ENGIE launched a program to co-create hydrogen-based solutions to help mining companies achieve their decarbonization targets. The potential usages of green hydrogen within the mining ecosystem are very broad and can displace a significant amount of fossil fuels, in addition to those that are currently already being displaced on the electrical side, with renewable energy plants.
ENGIE is also working with research organization Mining3 to convert mining vehicles in Chile’s mining sector to hydrogen power through the Hydra Project. Last August, ENGIE announced that it received funding from Chile’s Economic Development Agency for the Project to help design and supply a new powertrain for mining vehicles to run on renewable hydrogen instead of diesel. The project aims to scale up the solution to convert mining vehicles at several mining sites in Chile.
The Hydra Project is currently in Phase 2, which includes the design and validation of the performance of a 100- to 200-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell battery powertrain. The powertrain will be subject to endurance tests using an industrial bench testing facility where power loads and mining conditions can be simulated. This stage also includes evaluating the feasibility (business case, value proposition and risk), impact and opportunities of the new technology in a modelled mine site; conducting a supply chain study and integrating the findings into modelling and simulation; and canvassing existing global regulatory work related to hydrogen in mining.
ENGIE will also perform a gap analysis and work to develop a series of informed recommendations that further the advancement of an international standard for the use of hydrogen in mining operations. “We are exploring the participation of several entities, such as Sernageomin in Chile and CanmetMINING in Canada, that will support us on the hydrogen standards and regulations workstream,” Lopez says.
Despite these initiatives, there still exist many barriers facing the mining industry which could preclude some mining companies from fully adopting green hydrogen technology in their mining operations.
Barriers to hydrogen
While hydrogen technology is being adapted for passenger and other vehicles, hydrogen-powered mine haulers have a long way to go before they will be commercially available. “Currently, we can buy fuel cell-powered personal vehicles, buses, road trucks and even passenger trains,” says Lopez. “A passenger vehicle only needs a 5-kilowatt power system and a passenger train only needs about a 500-kilowatt system, whereas a mining hauler truck needs about 2 megawatts. So, the challenge for technology providers is to ensure that these fuel cell systems can be packaged properly to reach such scale while maintaining the required system efficiency and operational requirements.”
Another challenge is integrating such a fuel cell system within the mining vehicle, which operates in heavy-duty conditions. “It can definitely be done but if we want to reach the net-zero targets of the mining companies – some as soon as 2030 – we would need to accelerate and require even stronger cross-sector collaboration,” Lopez says.
Other barriers to adoption include the capital expenditure required to transition from diesel-fuelled haulers to hydrogen; the logistics of using green hydrogen; the logistics and expense of using fuel cells versus diesel-powered haulers; lower powertrain and energy efficiency as compared to battery electric vehicles (BEVs); safety concerns surrounding hydrogen refuelling stations; and properly skilled onsite labour for the production and storage of hydrogen and the operation, maintenance and fuelling of equipment.
The use of hydrogen-powered haulers in mining is promising but implementation could be as far away as 2030, as global and Canadian mining companies continue to investigate its feasibility.