The world is organizing its talents and materials to pursue a decarbonized future. This transition is happening faster in some industries than others. Until recently, heavy mining machinery was trailing behind in implementing clean energy. However, fuel cells could completely change the balance of power in this industry and beyond.
What Are the Advantages of Fuel Cells?
It’s helpful to understand the primary advantages of this technology. Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the most talked-about sources of sustainable energy because:
- Hydrogen is a plentiful resource that’s inexpensive to process.
- Fuel cells release only heat and steam as byproducts during operation.
- Converting hydrogen into energy has a 60% efficiency rating, far higher than solar or wind.
- Fuel cells improve air quality because they’re 100% emission-free.
This could be a world-changing technology, but engineers must adapt it to the multiton heavy equipment assets in the mining industry. This is a welcome time for a breakthrough — the carbon emissions from mining represented up to 7% of all global emissions in 2020.
How Is Mining Adopting Fuel Cells?
Several pilot programs and retrofitting projects are underway worldwide to adopt heavy mining machinery for fuel cells and vice versa.
One notable project in Switzerland replaced the diesel-engine components of mining trucks with nickel-manganese-cobalt fuel cells. This vehicle — called the “e-Dumper” — generates more energy than it expends during a typical round-trip. Its regenerative brakes recapture around 40 kWh of power just through standard operation.
However, hydrogen-based fuel cells will likely become the favored solution over battery cells fabricated using rare-earth metals like manganese and cobalt.
The Biggest Fuel Cell in the World — so Far
A platinum mine in South Africa currently hosts the world’s largest fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV). The mine at Mogalakwena had previously experimented with battery-only EV technology, but it wasn’t the best fit efficiency-wise. Hydrogen-based fuel cells can potentially bring fuel cell technologies up to current mining standards. Equipment runtime and energy efficiency are placed above any other consideration.
Ballard provided eight 100-kWh fuel cells for mining trucks at Mogalakwena. The trucks still use batteries, but this hybrid system delivers the performance the miners sought. During high-traction operations, the truck’s power plants can deliver up to 2 megawatts (MW) of peak power. By 2040, the mine will feature 40 FCEV trucks and a 3.5-megawatt electrolyzer facility to recharge the hydrogen fuel cells. This could be a model for the rest of the mining industry.
Where Else Are Fuel Cell Mining Vehicles Appearing?
Joseph Cyril Bamford Excavators, known worldwide as JCB, announced its first foray into fuel cell heavy equipment in 2020. As a known and respected entity in the field, JCB’s involvement in fuel cell development could galvanize other companies into taking action. JCB’s fuel cell-powered excavator weighs in at 20 tons and is the first vehicle of its kind to run on hydrogen.
A year later, SANY — another major OEM in the mining sector — revealed a mixing truck and a dump truck powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Like other vehicles powered this way, there are no tailpipe emissions and the only waste product is water vapor. SANY’s first fuel cell vehicles boast impressive ranges of more than 310 miles.
Fuel Cells Are Taking Off, but Progress Is Slow
Electric vehicles carrying heavy battery packs are an important part of transitioning from gas- and diesel-powered equipment. However, conventional batteries built with rare-earth minerals do not represent the ideal clean-energy future.
That role may fall to hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen can be created by various methods. The most common one involves fossil fuels, but others run the gamut from electrolysis to solar-powered and biologically driven processes.
Hydrogen could represent a major new era in mining, together with other material- and energy-saving mining techniques, like using recycled aggregates. The primary limiting factor right now is the lack of hydrogen-based refueling infrastructure compared to the plentiful refueling stations servicing gas- and diesel-based vehicles.
There are only 54 hydrogen refueling stations in the United States. There were 118 hydrogen stations in China as of 2020, and Europe had 177 in 2019. In contrast, Italy alone was home to more than 21,700 conventional fueling stations in 2021.
Mining has never been a model for good environmental stewardship, and there is an obvious imbalance between spending on conventional fuels and investments in clean energy. Hydrogen faces an uphill battle in a world with apparently bottomless subsidies for gas and oil companies and relatively little to spare for sustainable technologies.
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More public interest in hydrogen technology should eventually translate to hydrogen becoming a higher priority for public spending and private innovation. The U.S. spends $20 billion in taxpayer funds each year to support the fossil fuel industry. Even a faction of that sum would move the needle toward clean energy — including hydrogen.
Jane Marsh, Contributor
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