Energy giant Shell are looking to introduce LNG-powered fleets at Australian mines as part of a push to increase natural gas use beyond the export of LNG, with BHP and Rio Tinto both looking to implement the technology.
The two big miners are said to be looking at LNG-powered fleets for their West Australian operations as a way to offset high energy costs.
A spokesman for Rio told The Australian that it was looking at dual fuel technologies for the use in the Pilbara.
"There are some real challenges with the impact on payload, refuelling frequency and certainty over supply sources, but our work in this area remains ongoing," he said.
Stuart Macdonald, a global LNG applications technologist working for Shell pointed out the advantages of using the fuel in the mining industry at Shell’s Technology Forum late last year.
“If we zoom in on the Australian market there’s an abundance of supply,” he said.
“It’s a sustainable fuel, it’s not just a fix,” he said.
“Its cost competitiveness and its value as a cheaper fuel is not just something we see as a driver for the coming two to five years but for many decades to come.”
However, it is expected that any move to LNG-powered trucks is at least five years away with supply, transport, storage and truck conversion the main hurdles in implementing the technology.
Modifying engines and tanks, the use of the gas in high horse power engines and its energy content compared to diesel are all challenges the gas faces when discussing its application on mine sites.
To this end Westport Resources Australia and Caterpillar have joined forces to develop natural gas fuel systems for mine trucks and EMD locomotives.
“We recently signed an agreement with caterpillar to jointly develop direct injection engines specifically for the mine trucks the 793, 795 and 797 – and also part of that agreement is with EMD for the MD&10 engines used in the locomotives,” Westport Innovations Australia managing director Bruce Hodgins said.
The new joint venture is aimed at revolutionising the way the mining industry consumes energy.
Hodgins told Australian Mining that while the technology was some years off, he expected LNG to become a predominant fuel within the mining industry.
“For certain segments of mining and for certain areas it will become dominant, and frankly I think coal is one of those areas where you will see it being taken up as the predominant fuels,” he said.
“This is something we all need to partnership on, so we are working with fuel suppliers, engine technology people, the OEMs, customers and government regulators to address a lot of these (issues).”
Kim Palfrey, general manager of projects at New Hope Group, told Australian Mining that he expects the technology to be slowly phased in by Australian companies.
“LNG is some way off yet and will be expensive to implement,” he said.
“It will mean that this technology will more likely be phased in over time due to the extent of modification required convert to LNG power.”
However, Palfrey added that the gas was an important chapter in Australia’s fuel needs.
“It offers significant advantages to Australia as the mining and transport industries convert to LNG powered equipment.
“We should be somewhat protected from the volatility of the fossil fuel markets,” he said.