Electrification is shaking up many industries around the world. From domestic cars to agricultural vehicles, and everything in between, the future is shaping up to be very different from today.
Another industry that sits on the precipice of this revolution is the mining industry. Like other industries, electrification is bound to make an enormous impact on the future of mining.
What are the benefits of electrification for the mining industry?
Apart from the obvious benefits of improving air quality and working conditions, electrification promises to produce improvements in productivity and cost savings over the long term for any mining company that adopts it.
In fact, the electrification of mining equipment fleets has some significant health and safety benefits too. For example, they produce less heat, less noise, and vibration, and lack noxious exhaust gases. All of which are critical considerations in closed spaces -- like mines.
This is helped by some interesting innovations in battery auto-swap technology, increasing voltage, extending battery life, or equipment capability and reliability.
One key player in this mining revolution is the Swedish tech giant Sandvik. With over 150 years of experience in advanced engineering solutions (including for the mining industry), they are well placed to take the lead in this area too.
”You don’t have to change your way of mining. This is a massive change, but really easy to implement. That’s the message we are trying to make,” explains Brian Huff, who is VP of Technology and Product Line, Battery and Hybrid Electric Vehicle Business Unit.
”This benefits the workers, it benefits the mine operation, it’s easier for ventilation, governments are supportive and for global environmental concerns, it’s supportive. You have everything pushing in the same direction,” Huff explains.
Electrification requires a little rethink about how mining machines work
The mining industry is unique in many ways, but the most significant is the sheer size of the machinery needed for day-to-day operations. From 60-tonne dump trucks to enormous loaders, these machines need to be in near-constant operation.
”The best way to get more power, to have a more capable vehicle, faster speeds, and climbing steeper hills is through increasing the voltage,” Huff notes.
In most cases, this may require engineers to take a second look at how and why existing mining equipment has been developed and built and work to almost reinvent the wheel -- except with an electrical motor and battery powering it.
”[The mining industry] has unique challenges, and that is really what we are focusing on. Rethinking the entire machine starting from the ground up. Throw away everything from the diesel machine fundamentally, and look at what is really required to make the best battery-electric machine that can be for this industry,” explains Kyle Hickey, Vice President of Engineering, Battery and Hybrid Electric Vehicle Business Unit at Sandvik.
”One important factor when we talk about our BEV’s (Battery-electric vehicles) is being able to utilize the latest technology that is coming from other markets such as automotive and other industrial sectors,” Hickey added.
To this end, the rate of innovation in BEV technology in the mining industry has seen something of an explosion of late. The first generation of BEVs simply swapped out the old diesel combustion engines and fuel tanks from existing machines with batteries.
More modern examples are designed from the wheels (or tracks) up to fully integrate the battery resulting in much-improved performance and efficiency.
One of the most important areas of innovation has been the focus on optimizing charging and energy use in mines to ensure that battery-electric machines are at least as productive as their combustion-engined predecessors.
This is where technology like auto-battery swapping really comes into its own.
”The self-swapping battery system, the clear advantage of that is that it is the quickest way of getting energy on board for the machine to operate,” says Mikko Valtee, Manager Applied Research at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.
Such technology promises to significantly reduce the downtime of existing machines when the tank runs dry.
”It is really going after the infrastructure impact of refueling, ” Brian Huff notes.
”Swapping batteries means that you can charge batteries at the same rate that you are using the energy, mitigating the peak power draws from the infrastructure, minimizing the amount of charging power that you need and really optimizing all of your equipment,” Huff added.
Electrification will mean more powerful, more efficient mining machines
Amazingly, electrification also opens the possibility of getting more bang for your buck when it comes to mining equipment too. Top-performing electrified electrical vehicles can have twice the horsepower of an equivalent diesel machine, often of the same size. They are also lighter, meaning they can travel faster.
”Even on a [80-mile] 13-kilometer haul cycle on a 15% ramp there are two swaps in that entire operation, and the truck travels 10 percent faster than a traditional diesel machine. So really, net, you are equal or better in productivity using the battery,” Huff says.
So with productivity already there, and electrification offering potential for a cleaner, cooler, emissions-free environment as well as opportunities for cost savings on ventilation, the future looks bright. All this while technology development will only accelerate.
As the technology has improved, so has customer interest in it, further accelerating the pace of innovation.
”It is very easy today to get customers on board on this dialogue of electrification,” explains Mikko Valtee, Manager Applied Research at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.
“We are co-learning. We learn from them and they learn from us,” Valtee added. To this end, the immediate short-term future of mining vehicles seems very clear -- more electrification and more digitization.
“Envisioning the mine of the future, I see it is very much electrified and digitalized,” says Jani Vilenius, Director, Technology Development and Services at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.
“So it means it is a very sustainable operation, and with very productive and safe operations”. A view shared by Elina Pyykkö, Vice President, Product Development and Product Management, Underground Drilling at Sandvik.
”Making the shift - advancing the world through engineering, it is a great opportunity to be part of the journey with our customers to introduce more sustainable, more productive, and safer mining”.
In the years ahead, companies like Sandvik predict that the pace of electrification will only intensify. This should result, if the past is anything to go by, in the rapid advancement of improvement in power capacity, density, and reliability, while batteries will last longer and be smaller.
”As the early adopters and the fast followers come on board.... when someone is considering a fleet, they will stop asking why they should go with electrified equipment. And I think that flip in the approach is coming very rapidly," Huff predicts.