Demand for battery metals is expected to spike significantly during the next decade as the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) increases.
It is not only on public roads where electrification will be prominent, but also in the mining industry which is moving towards using cleaner energy to decarbonise operations.
Electrification has been hailed for its potential to strengthen the mining sector’s licence to operate and improve project economics in the coming years.
According to a survey of mining executives undertaken by research group State of Play, 87 per cent believe that all existing mine sites will become fully electric within 20 years and 60 per cent believe the next generation of greenfield mines will be fully electric.
Electrification presents an opportunity to completely remove diesel from mines, cut carbon emissions, reduce exposure to volatile oil prices and eliminate worker exposure to diesel particulates.
However, when and how mining companies make investments in battery-electric equipment remains a work in progress, particularly in Australia.
Uptake of battery-electric equipment in Australian mining has, so far, been slow because of the class of available machinery not being suited to the country’s large-scale mines and the significant up-front costs that are currently involved.
But the enthusiasm to go electric is evidently there, as demonstrated by the launch of the Electric Mine Consortium in March.
The State of Play-led Consortium involves 14 companies, including South32, OZ Minerals, IGO and Gold Fields, all of which signed a statement of intent to electrify their mines with the goal of accelerating change in the industry.
For these mining companies, electrification means they would not only be mining the commodities that enable this transition, but also using the machines made from the type of products they mine.
IGO is on track to achieve just that at the Nova underground nickel-copper-cobalt mine in Western Australia.
The Perth-based company has aligned itself to become a relevant supplier of metals that are critical to energy storage and renewable energy.
It is also exploring opportunities for battery-electric equipment at Nova, partnering with fellow Consortium member Safescape to trial the Bortana light mining vehicles at the site.
Mining contractor Barminco, another Consortium member, collaborated with IGO at Nova to implement the trial, and found that zero emissions allow more vehicles to be in a single area at the site, increasing productivity.
IGO chief operating officer Matt Dusci believes light battery vehicles are at a point of maturity where they are set for mass adoption within the industry.
He says a pre-feasibility study on the electrification of Nova also revealed that if IGO commenced development of the operation today, the technology would be “reliable, safe and cost effective enough” to develop an all-electric mine.
“Our study illustrated both a capital and operating savings over the life-of-mine, coupled with the emissions reduction,” Dusci says.
“We are committed to decarbonisation and excited about bringing new technology into our mines of the future.”
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) Epiroc and Sandvik, as well as Dassault, Horizon Power, Hahn Electric, Energy Vault and 3ME Technologies are others that have joined the Consortium.
In recent years, Epiroc has focused on designing zero-emission underground loaders, trucks and drill rigs, as well as technologies and packages that will enable the transition.
Epiroc business line manager Shaiful Ali says the company will seek battery-powered options for its full fleet of vehicles in the long-term.
However, he takes note of the status quo in Australian mining when it comes to this transition.
“A lot of the Australian mines are large and suit a bigger class of machines,” he says.
“Short term, I think diesel will be around because the evolution of the battery is not there yet. But in the long term, yes, we will also look at battery options for our full fleet of machines.”
To help overcome the costs involved with moving electric, Epiroc has established the Batteries as a Service solution, which gives the OEM ownership of the batteries being used on its underground machinery.
Investment in battery-electric machines has been known to be around double that of diesel models in the past. With Batteries as a Service, however, the initial capital outlay is reduced significantly as Epiroc oversees the life of the batteries.
“The biggest issue we faced was the cost, but I think with the recent introduction of Batteries as a Service, it gives the confidence that the upfront cost is not as damaging as once thought,” Ali says.
“The Batteries as a Service solution allows control and management of all batteries on site to be put into the hands of Epiroc, including maintenance and upgrades, allowing for a hassle-free approach towards electrifying a mine.”
State of Play report co-founder Graeme Stanway reinforces the cost and investment challenges that mining faces when it comes to electrification.
He says while the industry understands the benefits of electrification, when it comes to individually implementing them as an organisation, cost becomes a key hurdle.
“Our data shows renewables, all electric systems and batteries will help fuel the change towards a healthier, economically viable future of mining, but uncertainty remains when it comes to which area to invest in first, and how,” Stanway says.
But collaboration through an initiative like the Electric Mine Consortium might just be the answer to sparking change.
The State of Play survey found that the CEOs agree there should be more focus on collaboration to overcome cost barriers and uncertainty in technology choices that may be beyond the capacity of individual companies alone.
Industry growth centre METS Ignited is supporting the Electric Mine Consortium by helping develop deeper industry links between miners and vendors.
METS Ignited chief executive officer Adrian Beer says the Consortium will encourage industry collaboration, allowing for a new marketplace of solutions to address industry challenges.
“By aggregating together with their mine needs, it creates a meaningful marketplace to attract new and existing vendors, more importantly investors,” Beer says.
“The traditional approach in the mining sector around issues of safety and sustainability is often to work with research to find new ways to do things or try to improve processes, optimise or bring efficiency. They tend to be case-by-case solutions.
“The Consortium has aggregated demands across the sector so that technology companies and investors can access a marketplace for a new set of solutions to address industry challenges.”
With IGO already heavily invested in green energy, the company hopes to promote broader industry change by collaborating with industry through the Consortium.
Dusci says the Electric Mine Consortium will help decarbonisation materialise.
“The Electric Mine Consortium offers IGO the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded companies focused on accelerating this drive to electrification,” he says.
“IGO will continue to have our own individual goals for emissions and electrification; however, the Consortium offers the platform for collaboration and the sharing of learnings and ideas.”
Extracts from this article first appeared in Australian Mining and Safe to Work magazine, both titles at Prime Creative Media.