One of the world’s largest trucks, the Komatsu 930E dump truck, has replaced its diesel-powered engine with a hydrogen engine as part of a pioneering experiment in South Africa to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Someday this strange invention, wrapped in multicolored green and orange spirals and weighing nearly 24 metric tons, will emerge from a Seattle industrial park destined for a platinum mine in South Africa.
There it will meet its future owner: a truck that is one of the largest land vehicles on the planet.
The Komatsu 930E is a three-story vehicle made in Peoria, Illinois, priced at $5 million each. These “ultra-class” vehicles, as they are called, are Clydesdales of open-pit mines, hauling nearly 300 tons of rock from the dusty depths of the quarry to the ledge for crushing and processing. The diesel-electric hybrid can burn nearly 800 gallons of diesel fuel a day.
But this particular truck, once transplanted, will never burn diesel fuel again. Its engine will be dismantled and replaced with a new device from Seattle, a fuel cell power plant powered by hydrogen.
British mining giant Anglo American PLC owns the truck and the site: the Mogalakwena mine, a 28-square-mile series of pits that are one of the world’s leading sources of platinum. Anglo American says that if the truck does its job, it will convert many more of the 400 trucks it operates around the world. It also intends to produce hydrogen fuel at a South African mine, using no resources other than solar power and dirty water.
No one can know if this will work. Experiments are underway to run trains, ferries and large trucks on hydrogen, but no one has used it to power a 5-ton dump truck in a dusty pit that is shaken by explosions.
“It’s not low-hanging fruit,” said Chris Voorhees, president and chief engineer of First Mode, the Seattle-based startup that Anglo American approached to select a zero-carbon design and build a hydrogen prototype.
“We picked the worst first,” he added.
That Anglo American is tackling all these issues is an indication of how traditional industries synonymous with pollution are responding to pressure from governments and investors to reduce emissions to zero – and how several leaders are trying to find solutions in ways that create new business for themselves.
Anglo American says it is making an effort to be a good corporate citizen, but there are other reasons.
The company’s annual report indicates that many of the key clean energy components of the future — electric cars, wind turbines, high-voltage power lines — will require tons of copper. Anglo-American copper deposits. It is also a leading producer of platinum and related metals, which are needed for hydrogen-synthesizing electrolyzers and fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity. The report notes that mines such as Mogalakwena “play a crucial role in the emerging hydrogen economy.”
Hydrogen muscle in the mining industry
So Anglo American is backing this economy.
This week, Anglo American announced an $8.5 million investment in First Mode to “decarbonize global mining operations and develop a new generation of clean energy dump trucks.” It acquired an ownership interest in Ballard Power Systems Inc. a Canadian company that made fuel cells for the plant.
In Mogalakven, it is working with Engie SA, the French energy giant, to build a hydrogen delivery system and is bidding to build a 100-megawatt solar power plant, which will be up and running in two years and will provide the energy-intensive process. hydrogen production. Today only a few projects use renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, compared to “gray” hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas or methane and has a much higher carbon footprint.
The company aims to reach zero carbon emissions by 2040, and in June it sold its last coal mining operations for energy production.
“We are working to create a world where our mines are integrated, automated, carbon-neutral and water-free,” Anglo American spokeswoman Cathy Ryall said in an email.
Anglo American is ahead of other mining companies in its zero-carbon commitments and its experiments with hydrogen. But it has many companies that are pursuing electrification.
“The mining industry as a whole has been slow to tackle carbon reduction, efficiency and all that. They’re reluctant to do it because it’s a very expensive business,” said Merritt Enders, head of mining at the Colorado School of Mines.
But in the last year or two, he said, a “dramatic change” has begun as ESG, or “environment-social management,” issues have taken center stage. Mining companies and their suppliers are exploring how electric mining machines, powered by cables or batteries, can clean air in mining tunnels or save money compared with a diesel engine.
For example, Komatsu Ltd., maker of the Anglo dump truck, is part of a separate consortium trying to reduce mining machine emissions. ABB Ltd. and Hitachi Construction Machinery Co. Ltd. in June announced a partnership to develop an all-electric mining dump truck powered by a contact or overhead power line. Earlier this year, a consortium of companies, including ABB and Volvo Group, announced a plan to build an electric and autonomous iron ore mine in northern Sweden.
“Getting ESG right is a competitive advantage that directly impacts your bottom line,” Enders said.
Despite recent activity, hydrogen is still causing a lot of skepticism.
“Hydrogen is very explosive,” said Dr. Peter Harrop, chairman of the consulting firm IDTechEx. He wrote a report on the prospects for electrifying the mining industry and concluded that batteries are better. “If you store it, you can’t store it for very long, and economically it’s not promising.”
“Design by Scarcity.”
First Mode built a hydrogen plant. Voorhees, a company executive, previously worked for 15 years at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked as a mechanical engineer for several Mars rovers. He is one of several founding members of First Mode from NASA.
Wearing steel-rimmed glasses, a blue COVID-19 mask and a black T-shirt, Vorhees showed E&E News the company’s office, which is in a warehouse district south of downtown, across from the U-Haul depot and just a few blocks from Starbucks Corp. headquarters. The company has its second office in Australia and has grown to 160 employees since its founding three years ago.
The first-mode starting point in spacecraft defines the approach to engineering problems, which Voorhees calls “designing for scarcity.”
“It never has enough mass, it never has enough volume,” Voorhees said of the Martian vehicles he worked on. “It never has enough power, it’s 100 million miles away, so its ability to communicate is at risk.”
South Africa is a relatively modest 10,000 miles away. But in converting the diesel-electric engine to hydrogen First Mode must contend with the sheer size – “this building is moving at 40 miles an hour,” Voorhees said – and other problems that don’t exist outside our atmosphere, such as dust and vibration. as rocks crash into the back of the truck.
The dizzying dilemmas of power, volume and heat become even more difficult.
The first mode was to place the new powertrain in the place previously occupied by the diesel engine. But the hydrogen system, according to Voorhees, is neither as energy-intensive nor capable of providing that much power. In addition, the fuel cells emit half their energy as heat. The team had to design a new front radiator to allow the heat to go anywhere.
“Thermality is a very unpleasant problem, but man, it’s very important,” Voorhees said.
The solution, like its predecessor, is hybrid. Compressed hydrogen tanks power fuel cells that generate electric current. That’s familiar, since the standard Komatsu 930E diesel already supplies electricity to most of its systems, including the wheels.
“The new addition is a significant bank of seven lithium-ion batteries,” said Amber Baurley, a First Mode engineer who led the system integration. As the vehicle descends 950 feet vertically into the depths of Mogalakwena, the new regenerative brakes will charge those batteries. The truck can run on both fuel cells and batteries.
Voorhees said First Mode’s early focus was on the mining sector because it saw technology that needed to change, and quickly.
“It’s an industry that has grown organically over hundreds of years,” he said. “It was optimized exactly as much as it needed to be profitable, and now it’s under extraordinary external pressure to improve its operations.”