How 40-year old tech can help take mining into the future

How 40-year old tech can help take mining into the future

Australian miners are getting into prime position in the move to improve sustainability by shifting operations from to electric power, global giant ABB says.

Globally, multiple forces are combining to push miners to operate more sustainably, including the introduction of emission reduction targets in some markets, changing community expectations and increasing pressure from boards, shareholders and investors.  

Miners account for between 4% and 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions1. The industry’s diesel truck fleet, numbering around 30,000 vehicles worldwide, is a major contributor to its carbon footprint.  

“Each one of those trucks can consume a million litres of diesel a year,” says Mehrzad Ashnagaran, Global Product Line Manager Electrification for the mining industry at ABB.  

Diesel has long provided miners with a reliable source of power. But as environmental concerns and fuel costs grow, its drawbacks are getting harder to ignore. Emissions from diesel are highly carbon intensive, and diesel use underground creates air-quality problems for miners and equipment alike.  

Ashnagaran says Australian operators have been quick to show interest in electrification as a replacement for diesel, and are probably ahead of their peers in North America, and to a lesser extent, South America in embracing the change. In some ways, he says, miners are ahead of the curve, making plans to move to electrification while energy suppliers are still working to bring more renewable power to the market.  

In June ABB announced a new collaboration with services group Perenti and miner IGO that’s undertaking a study for the design of an electrification program for IGO’s Cosmos Nickel project located 30km north of Leinster in Western Australia.   

With a shared vision for more sustainable operations, ABB and Perenti have been working closely together on electrification, believing it’s the key to cleaner, greener and ultimately safer and more productive mining. The partners have also collaborated on studies to provide battery-electric solutions to underground and open pit mines.  

At IGO’s Cosmos, ABB and Perenti are examining factors including hauling operations, power distribution, energy efficiency and power management.   

Climate-smart mining  

ABB sees electrification as one of three major shifts in technology and innovation that together can deliver what it calls Climate Smart mining.  

But the benefits aren’t just environmental. For example, the ABB eMine™ Trolley System, which allows trucks to be powered by overhead wires like a tram or train, can cut diesel consumption by 90%. At the Copper Mountain site in Canada, it’s helping to reduce overall emissions by 50% by 2035, and the trucks are running up to 80% faster.   

While the conversion to electric carries an upfront capex cost, operation expenditure can be significantly reduced, ABB’s Ashnagaran says. Running trucks on a trolley system can deliver a return on investment in as little as three years, he says.  

Not bad for technology that, while greatly refined over the years, first appeared in 1984.  

ABB’s trolley systems are part of a suite of e-mining solutions it offers under the ABB Ability™ eMine banner, ranging from ultra-fast charging systems for mining battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) to high-power rectifiers and prefab, containerised E-houses designed to host a range of electrical and automation equipment.

Yet while electrification is a key component to making mining greener, it’s not the only one.

Miners are also looking to digitalisation to lift productivity, use resources more and lower input costs. Even on sites far from major population centres, miners are making significant strides in digital. In Chile, Gold Fields is pursuing a full digitalisation project at its Salares Norte project that's located 1300km from Santiago in the remote Atacama desert, up among the highest peaks of the Andes mountain range with elevations of up to 4900m.   

At Salares Norte, remote connectivity helps reduce the number of people needed at the site, improving safety and efficiency. Gold Fields is working with ABB to combine industrial analytics and artificial intelligence to integrate 25 engineering, operational and information technology systems across functional areas including the mine, processing, geology and exploration, asset management, finance, legal and human resources.  

Remote locations and harsh conditions have made the adoption of the third pillar of climate-smart mining, automation, more challenging than in other industries. But technology and innovation are now rapidly overcoming those obstacles, ABB says.  

For example, automation, alongside advanced technologies like digital twinning, is helping on-demand ventilation systems cut energy use by up to 50% by only providing ventilation to parts of the site where there’s activity, rather than ventilating the entire site.  

“The greenest energy that we have is the energy we don't use,” says Max Luedtke, VP and  Business Line Manager, Mining at ABB. “There's a lot of energy savings in those kinds of solutions.”   ABB’s Ashnagaran says there are still challenges to overcome before mines can be fully electrified, but miners shouldn’t wait for a perfect solution to suddenly arrive one day before doing anything.  

“The changes are going to happen in phases,” he says. That means miners should be engaging with electrification early, building their own skills and knowledge base and helping suppliers understand what they need.  

By acting now, they’ll be better positioned for a more sustainable and efficient future, he says.


This article was first published in The Australian Mining Review, October edition.


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