Flicking the switch on electric mining

The mines of the future will have a large presence of electric vehicles and machines.

One of the major hurdles in mining’s road to decarbonisation will be the transition from diesel to electric operations, but the combined efforts of the industry and research community are set to shift the journey into gear. Nickolas Zakharia writes.

The commitment to decarbonise mining operations has been forecast to come to fruition in less than 30 years. 

Many of the industry’s largest players are standing firm on their pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and a clear way forward is through electrification. 

By replacing diesel-powered mining vehicles with battery-electric options, their emissions will decrease in this part of operations, at least.

But as many companies already know, there is much more to electrification than just cashing in on the latest zero-emission equipment. 

Electric mining equipment is developing at a rapid pace, yet many options are still in their early stages of development.

The move to electric mining will require stringent planning to ensure operations are well-optimised to perform up to standard, while ensuring these significant investments pay off.

To meet these requirements, industry initiatives are underpinning the adoption of electric mining equipment. 

In 2018, the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FBICRC) was introduced to provide a path forward for Australia’s battery supply through industry-led research.

The Federal Government-backed FBICRC is supported by a long list of participants, including the likes of BHP, IGO, Ardea Resources and the University of Adelaide.

FBICRC research director Jacques Eksteen says Australia’s mining industry is taking an active role in adopting electric technologies

“In general, the industry has been enthusiastic about the opportunity, but cautious,” Eksteen tells Australian Mining.

“In order to achieve decarbonisation targets using ‘green’ mining sources, companies need access to energy sources with the lowest carbon footprint possible.”

Ardea’s Kalgoorlie nickel project is located north of Kalgoorlie.

A University of Adelaide research project named: Assessment, design and operation of battery-supported electric mining vehicles and machinery, was funded by the FBICRC in August.

The $2.76 million project aims to help develop a set of guidelines and decision-making tools to support the industry’s adoption of battery-supported vehicles and electric machines. 

Scheduled for completion within three-and-a-half years, the project plans to enable the resources sector to improve costs and energy reliability, occupational health and safety, and the carbon footprint of mine production. 

University of Adelaide school of electrical and electronic engineering lecturer Ali Pourmousavi will lead the study, as part of the university’s focus on electric vehicle, battery and microgrid research. 

Pourmousavi says an Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) report from 2017 found up to 41 per cent of total mine site energy usage is consumed by diesel-powered mining vehicles, causing a large amount of operational costs and emission issues for mining companies. 

The project will work with Australian mine sites to develop case studies and engage with more mine sites as the studies progress.

“With the mine sites we are working with, we will develop a mine electrification roadmap and conduct comparative case studies,” Pourmousavi says. 

“The comparative case studies will see how much operational cost reduction and energy reliability we can expect from the new system.”

The project’s case studies are focussing on underground surface mining operations, with potential for the learnings to be adopted by mine sites looking for similar roadmaps.

Pourmousavi and his team will first identify the “low hanging fruit” involved in the switch to electric mining, and then work out the best way for mine sites to implement the technology. 

This includes the most cost-effective way to implement battery-electric vehicles; how to compare the performance, economics and environmental impact of battery-electric vehicles; the interaction of different parts of the electric mine system; the design of the new system and the skills required from the mine’s workforce.

Pourmousavi says the cost of electrification is rapidly dropping, opening the door for more mining companies to jump on board.

“The technology is very quickly getting better and better; if not every day, at least every year,” Pourmousavi says. “The new lithium-ion batteries, for instance, are better in terms of energy and power density, capacity degradation and safety than their ancestors at a much lower cost. 

“We want to work closely with our partners to accurately estimate the cost of electrification, including capital expenditure and operating of electric haul truck energy infrastructure, and upskilling of the workforce. 

“We also want to see the benefit of lowering ventilation costs underground, less diesel fuels and maintenance of electric haul trucks.”

With a cash and in-kind value of $120 million and 68 participants across 15 projects, the FBICRC is primed for industry collaboration.

Eksteen acknowledges several risks that must first be addressed for electrification to become viable. 

“The successful adoption of electrification technologies by the mining industry is not the sole domain of larger scale companies,” Eksteen says. 

“Company culture, risk appetite, the lifecycle of the mine, level of existing investment in sunk assets and whether the business is a green or brownfield enterprise, all play a role in determining the viability of electrification for companies large and small.”

With the industry’s major players setting the foundation for electrification, mid and junior mining companies are also preparing to transform their mine sites.

Sixty-one per cent of mining industry executives surveyed in State of Play’s 2020 Electric Mine Consortium report – which is also backed by the FBICRC – expect the next generation of mines will be electric. 

Ardea Resources, a FBICRC participant with this belief, plans to help the electric movement charge forward at its operations.

The company is developing the Kalgoorlie nickel-cobalt project in Western Australia, which is expected to supply the resources needed for lithium-ion batteries once in operation.

Ardea managing director Andrew Penkethman says it’s important for explorers to commit to electrification at their future mine sites.

“It’s linked to consistency and commitment to our high environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards, which include carbon emissions,” Penkethman tells Australian Mining. 

“We’re really impressed with the work that’s been undertaken by the FBICRC, who have been very proactive in leading that move to define a sustainable and ethical mineral supply here in Australia.”

Ardea Resources managing director Andrew Penkethman.

Penkethman says the FBICRC’s work on precursor production for battery manufacturing in Australia is another step forward for the industry.

Ardea is supplying drill core material from the Kalgoorlie project’s Goongarrie Hub in Western Australia to help the FBICRC pilot precursor cathode-active material (PCAM) flowsheets.

The project could potentially become a supplier for PCAM production in the future.

With the Western Australian Government on board for the delivery of FBICRC projects, Penkethman says more support across the country should be encouraged. 

“I think it’s terrific what the Western Australian state government is doing. I’d like to see more of it around Australia and the world, to put in place additional support and infrastructure to assist the rollout of electrification,” he says. 

Penkethman says Ardea is looking to become a sustainable supplier of battery minerals, as the supply chain continues to seek lower emission operations under stakeholder and ESG pressures. 

“(Electrification) will certainly be a key consideration,” he says. “My understanding is, while the technology for electrified mine fleets is still very much under evaluation and we’ve got some large resources companies in the world evaluating that, they have the balance sheet strength to help lead the way.

“Provided that the technology has been sufficiently de-risked, it’s something that Ardea will look at very seriously.” 

As the steps towards electrification grow larger with each new initiative, the transition holds key benefits for a safer and more sustainable mining industry. 

Electrification will not take place overnight, but industry collaboration to develop a stronger understanding on the value and challenges of electrification are certainly welcome additions in the journey towards decarbonisation.  

This article appears in the October issue of Australian Mining.

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