The mining industry supplies essential minerals needed for various decarbonization efforts. However, the industry must also move forward on its transition to net-zero emissions. In this sector's endeavor to reduce its carbon footprint, hydrogen is emerging as a prominent solution.
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The mining sector could achieve near-term goals by moving away from operations with high emissions, including the use of coal, and switching to power derived from renewable sources.
Realizing these extended objectives largely depends on attaining technological breakthroughs. The mining industry is investing in hydrogen technology and its various applications to reduce emissions over time.
Transport in the industry is among the most critical areas for hydrogen applications, particularly when it comes to decreasing the use of fossil fuels for on-premise and off-site transportation.
Hydrogen-fueled vehicles - like excavators and haulage trucks - are an emerging solution that can also decrease the need for minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, manganese, and nickel, used in electric vehicle battery production.
Another key area is the downstream processing of mined materials. Smelting, in particular, is a high emissions activity, and the process holds significant potential for hydrogen applications.
Hydrogen-Powered Mining Trucks
There are currently several efforts by different companies to adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology for mining trucks.
In one effort, First Mode created a prototype hydrogen-powered truck engine to quickly replace a standard diesel motor.
A prototype engine from First Mode has been working at platinum mining operations in South Africa for over a year. The company is increasing its efforts to refine the technology by launching a sizeable evaluation ground in a disused coal mine in Washington State.
The company's prototyping and production facility in Seattle has doubled in size since the company moved into the facility in 2020. First Mode has announced plans to open a full-scale production facility.
The engine's hydrogen fuel cells can produce energy to power a public transit bus. The prototype engine links eight of these cells together. It can generate enough energy to power a large ferry boat, a football stadium, or 1,500 homes.
The First Mode engine uses these fuel cells to charge a battery system that delivers spikes in power for climbing the steep inclines of an open pit mining operation. The engine also uses a regenerative system that sends power into the battery while the vehicle brakes.
Even as the company works to expand operations and refine its prototype, it already has orders for more than 400 engines from operations as distant as Brazil and Australia.
First Mode has said the first delivery of its hydrogen system will be in 2025, sending not just engines but also power storage and refueling systems.
BHP to Develop a Hydrogen-Powered Smelting Plant
Australian mining company BHP recently agreed with international engineering outfit Hatch to create an electric furnace pilot project that smelts iron ore for steel production using clean electricity and hydrogen.
The pilot plant will contribute to reducing carbon emissions by processing iron ore from the BHG's Pilbara mines in Australia.
The project will help sustainably create steel by replacing coking coal with hydrogen. This facility would test and optimize iron output from a new electric smelting furnace (ESF) created by steel producers and engineering businesses. This furnace can produce steel from iron ore with a direct reduced iron (DRI) step.
Projections indicate that carbon emission decreases of more than 80 percent are possible compared to the average emissions for the conventional blast furnace.
The ESF is also more versatile when it comes to raw materials inputs, dealing with a primary barrier to broader use of other low-emissions routes, including the usage of electric arc furnaces, which are made for scrap steel processing. It is also possible that the ESF can be built into a steel plant’s current production operations.
Future Prospects and Challenges of Hydrogen in the Mining Sector
One of the challenging aspects of adopting hydrogen as a source of clean energy is that not all hydrogen is created equally. Hydrogen production is categorized based on the source of energy used to produce it.
Green hydrogen uses only renewable energy sources like solar to perform electrolysis operations that generate it. Unfortunately, there are prohibitive costs associated with green hydrogen and the need to access renewable energy sources.
Grey hydrogen, on the other hand, uses fossil fuel combustion to perform electrolysis. Mining operations must consider their desire for hydrogen, along with cost, timing, regulations, and more.
Mining companies may want to consider a holistic approach beyond the design and building of hydrogen fuel cells and production operations to harvest the possible benefits of green hydrogen.
A holistic approach must factor in the risks, operational obstacles, and sustainability implications that will impact widespread deployment. This approach encompasses business and operating models and could involve modifying core operations and successfully transitioning to new hydrogen solutions.
References and Further Reading
BHP. (2023) BHP and Hatch commence design study for an electric smelting furnace pilot. [Online] BHP. Available at: https://www.bhp.com/news/media-centre/releases/2023/03/bhp-and-hatch-commence-design-study-for-an-electric-smelting-furnace-pilot
Martin, P. (2023) Fortescue continues testing hydrogen fuel cell mining trucks, despite admitting they are inefficient. [Online] HydrogenInsight. Available at: https://www.hydrogeninsight.com/transport/fortescue-continues-testing-hydrogen-fuel-cell-mining-trucks-despite-admitting-they-are-inefficient/2-1-1495685
Mittge, B. (2023) First Mode aims to decarbonize mining with hydrogen engine. [Online] Association of Washington Business. Available at: https://www.awb.org/news/first-mode-aims-decarbonize-mining-hydrogen-engine