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Battery Electric Underground – is Australia falling behind?

4 Mins read

Battery Electric Vehicles are emerging as one of the hottest topics on the planet. Not only are they an eco-friendly alternative for personal transportation, but they’re also powering a new wave of mining investment.

So why is the Australian mining industry, one of the larger mining-focused economies on earth, dragging its heels on battery electrification for its own underground mining projects?

Before we dig deep into the subject why don’t we refresh the timeline of development and adoption around the globe:

** The table above was compiled utilising free resources and research across the internet, and I have tried to collate as much detail as possible. Names of mines are associated with their current owners. Please reach out if their are any glaring errors or steps missed!

The colour coding of the chart above clearly shows a delay in the involvement of projects within Australia to the battery electric implementation party. With the gold hue only emerging later in the more modern timeline.

Early Australian Adoption

I did take the time to research the Kiruna Truck, a technology that was seemingly a generation ahead of time. This Swedish-developed truck utilises a trolley and backs-mounted rail system to deliver power for heavy trucking up a decline.

The Kiruna Truck utilised a small Nickel-Cadmium battery to tram when not attached the backs mounted rail system.

Think of it is a haulage train that looks like a standard underground dump truck. However, this system doesn’t utilise a huge diesel engine to generate power, rather a trolley attached to a backs mounted rail system. Delivering energy via electrical transfer from the rail to the trolley, enabling a significant reduction in heat and diesel particulates.

The 80s & 90s versions of these trucks utilised a small nickel-cadmium battery that allowed the truck to drive into the loading level and away from the decline mounted rail system to be loaded. Therefore, becoming some of the first battery-electric vehicles used underground in Australia!

Canadian Innovation

The latest incarnation of battery electric adoption, driven largely by operational and ESG constraints, appears to have emerged in Canada. A jurisdiction that has remained ahead of the global curve as the underground sector moves toward load & haul electrification.

Canadian miners have worked with manufacturers from North America and Europe to meet their business requirements. This includes an amazing case study, well ahead of its industry peers in 2012, at Agnico Eagles’ Macassa mine (Kirkland Lake Gold at time of implementation).

A battery-electric RDH Muckmaster 300 EB working at the Macassa mining complex in Canada. The mine worked with manufacturers to develop a bespoke battery-electric fleet back in 2012.

The pioneering team at Macassa worked with Canadian-based OEM, RDH Mining, to develop, ahead of commercial release, a battery electric fleet for load and haul underground. They then utilised a modified Sandvik LH203 loader that was stripped of its diesel internals and retro fitted with a battery electric drive train.

Interesting rather than a pure modern ESG play, this was driven by operational requirements and restrictions to existing ventilation systems. The reduced heat and associated diesel fumes of a newly developed battery electric fleet, reduced capital expenditure of new ventilation upgrades and allowed the project to develop deeper.

This radical adoption was nearly a decade ahead of the current wave transition we currently see across the globe and was testament to out of the box thinking and collaboration with OEMs.

Australian Electrification, or lack of…

The timeline shared above grew as I researched to try and find the earliest mentions of underground battery electric heavy fleets. It wasn’t until I finally had the data points laid out in front of me that I realised how obvious the delay in Australian involvement has been.

We can see a huge development push in the Americas and Europe from both miners and OEMs. With miners and manufacturers working together to trial and develop machines fit for purpose.

Worringly we can see large orders being placed by prominent miners in both India and South Africa ahead of their Australian peers. Thus, showcasing jurisdictions that are not classified as first-class investment locations beating those operating down under in their scoping, trials and adoption.

This delay in adoption is concerning on several levels, most notably the health and wellbeing of underground workers is being overlooked. And any operational benefits in relation to removal of diesel particulates and heat from the underground workplace, have also been delayed. Increasing, possibly needless, exposure to operators and staff of excessive heat and known carcinogen.

From a global environmental standpoint, whilst there is work needed to provide renewable energy sources to power the battery-electric fleet, the slow movement toward implementation is not setting the stall of those operating down under, for environmental success.

Finally, does it smack of stagnation and skills issues within the mine engineering ranks? With businesses not looking to their global peers, or their own operations in other jurisdictions, for advice, guidance and support in an area that is now becoming increasingly commonplace in other parts of the globe.

Be the first to be second

Discussing new technologies and innovations across the Australian mining landscape, I have heard this comment often: “Everyone wants to be the first to be second”. This makes total sense in many ways, reducing time, effort, capital spend and operational risk on new or emerging technologies that could be of possible benefit.

For genuinely new ideas and technology from start-ups or global first initiatives it is likely that there is going to be hesitancy. Courage and an operations-based champions generally needs to emerge to drive the systematic and operational change required for project success.

But are battery electric load and haul equipment in this “new ideas” category now, following so many successful trials and implementations worldwide?

Is there a case that Australian miners are now not second but almost last in line to fully explore and dive into a new way of equipment and operational delivery at their projects. That not only sets the scene for lower carbon emissions from underground operations but also radically improved health and production metrics.

Solving the problem

Collaboration is key to allowing the Australian mining sector to catch up with its global counterparts and benefit from the battery-electric movement.

The Electric Mines Consortium is assisting miners and OEMs to colloborate within the Australian mining sector

It is great to see bodies like the Electric Mine Consortium emerge, focused primarily on the Australian mining landscape. Allowing the sharing of ideas and industrial trials across the sector.

Collectively down under we can do more to drive the charge to battery electric adoption underground that we deserve to benefit from both environmentally and productively into the future.

Are you exploring new and exciting facets of underground mining?

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I continually strive to offer new and interesting content for those exploring new technologies and ideas for underground mining – so please send me an email if you would like to get involved.

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