While the technologies required to power underground mining vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells have been proven, they are not yet commercially available
Equipment Technology

The Intelligent guide to: hydrogen fuel cells for mining

Batteries and battery metals are currently enjoying their moment in the spotlight. But there are alternative technologies for miners looking to reduce their carbon footprint. The Intelligent Miner presents a selection of the best articles on hydrogen fuel cells for mining

Why hydrogen?

Hydrogen fuel cells, while still at a nascent stage of development for mine vehicles, could offer a viable alternative to traditional style and lithium-based batteries. On a larger scale, they also provide an alternative energy-storage mechanism for off-grid mine sites, and can be applied alongside advanced battery systems and gas or renewable energy sources in order to secure sites a reliable source of low-cost power.

Research firm Grand View Research expects the global fuel cell market to grow to US$24.81 billion by 2025 at a compound average growth rate of 20.9%, and with major miners like Amplats and Fortescue Metals Group investing in the technology, it’s certainly worth consideration for forward thinking miners.

The Rocky Mountain Institute ran an excellent article in September last year from Christopher Jackson, a renewable energy consultant for the World Bank, which explains how hydrogen fuel cells can be applied across the spectrum in mining. You can read it here.

Hydrogen for mine vehicles

Platinum-based hydrogen fuel cells currently exhibit the most promise for use in both passenger and off-highway vehicles. They convert energy stored in chemical form into electricity, cleanly and quietly. Amplats gives a good overview of how the technology works here.

Hydrogen and batteries are often portrayed as competing technologies. However, their relative strengths and weaknesses suggest that they could play complementary roles; battery electric vehicles have a higher overall fuel efficiency as long as they are not too heavy due to large battery sizes, making them well suited for short-distance and lighter vehicles. Hydrogen can store more energy in less weight, making fuel cells suitable for vehicles with heavy payloads and long ranges. Faster refuelling also benefits commercial fleets and other vehicles in near-continuous use. How the technologies relate will depend on how battery technology evolves and how quickly cost reductions from scaling fuel-cell production can be realised.

From 2004-08, the US Department of Energy ran a programme in conjunction with industry partners including Caterpillar, Newmont and Hatch called The Fuel Cell Hybrid Mine Loader Project. The project had three main goals: to develop a fuel cell powered LHD, to develop associated metal-hydrid storage and refuelling systems, and to demonstrate the hybrid loader in an underground mine in Nevada. The full report published in 2009 is available here and makes good reading for those interested in the technical aspects of fuel cells.

The team found that, although hydrogen fuel cell power plants are technically ready to power underground mining vehicles, the underground mining industry is a relatively small market compared to mobile surface markets, and as such, it is difficult to attract the necessary capital investment to put fuel cell powered vehicles into commercial production.

Given the recent level of interest in batteries for mining vehicles, their more advanced state of development and lower price point, this is where most major OEMs and miners are focusing their efforts, particularly for underground equipment models which are smaller and more easily powered. Hydrogen fuelled trucks and loaders, while technically feasible are still a way off of commercialisation. However, as the market for fuel-cell powered on-highway vehicles matures, so too will the technologies for off-highway applications.

Hydrogen for energy supply

More widely understood and commercially proven, hydrogen fuel cells for microgrids are gaining traction, particularly in major mining markets such as Australia.

Brisbane hosted a major conference dedicated to hydrogen energy in August 2018. The Coalition for Eco Efficient Comminution produced a report summarising key finding and featuring many of the presentations which you can read here. There was also a good presentation at the Energy and Mines conference which was held in Australia in June 2018 on de-risking mining operations with renewable hydrogen energy systems. Click here to download it.

The Australian government is providing substantial backing for the development and implementation of hydrogen-based technologies and national research agency CSIRO announced in 2017 that it had made a major breakthrough in the use of ammonia for the storage and transport of hydrogen destined for fuel cells. This was followed by the creation of a A$20 million partnership with FMG in November 2018 to commercialise the technology.

At the International Conference on Hydrogen from Renewable Energies, New Opportunities for Chile held in 2017, engineering consultants from AdapTec also presented their ideas for a hydrogen-powered mine village and also hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles.

These are just a selection of the articles and presentations that I have found on the topic of hydrogen fuel cells for mining and, as always, please comment below if you know of any other interesting projects currently underway.

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