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May 2022

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Experts Corner

From diesel to net zero – the ultimate sustainable mining goal

Many organizations have put sustainability and environmental conservation at the forefront of their business, including developing alliances to help Canada achieve its climate change goals. Net zero mining is moving from a fuzzy concept to a defined path with clear benchmarks and goals, assisting many mining organizations in establishing roadmaps to make their net zero pledges a reality.

Eliminating mining's dependence on diesel fuel is the number one target for advancing towards net zero. However, many of the technologies that will replace diesel are currently in the research and development stages. For mines, therefore, the journey will begin with interim steps. 

In this edition of Experts Corner, Dillon McKinnon, Manager, Mining Technologies, guides us through the journey and the options available to mining companies.

Dillon: Getting to net zero has become a primary objective in mining, and many of our customers have set aggressive targets. As you know, mining has depended on diesel, which has a carbon-intensive footprint. In terms of equipment, diesel emissions from mining trucks account for half or more of the total emissions from a typical mining operation. So as the industry moves towards net zero, getting off diesel will make a significant impact.

The two most promising technologies to replace diesel are electrification, including battery-electric and trolley-assist, which powers mining vehicles through alternative energy sources, and hydrogen fuel cells, producing zero emissions while converting the hydrogen into the energy required to power equipment. 

But those technologies are currently in research and development, and people are wondering today, what to do during this transitional phase. 

Dillon: For the short term, I think the most practical and versatile option is replacing diesel with renewable diesel sources such as, Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), which is commercially available and essentially functions like net zero diesel fuel. We're currently working with one of our customers to conduct some live application tests to monitor the productivity and output of this option.  

Another is electrification on select routes that are particularly carbon-intensive. For example, if a fully loaded truck comes out of a pit, that's usually a high source of emissions. So using a trolley-assist system to electrify that portion can be very productive towards meeting targets.

I should also mention that some companies have experimented with propane and natural gas. But those fuels don't have the same intensity as diesel, so the machinery isn't as powerful.

Dillon: HVO is what we call a drop-in fuel in that we can put it in a diesel engine with no modifications. Cummins Diesel has already certified it for highway use on their engines. Their engineers tell us there should be no issues getting mining equipment certification, which we expect in 2023.

HVO has no sulphur, and it's ISO designated as a cleaner fuel. But what gets HVO to net zero is the carbon offset we gain by growing the crop from seed to fruit, which is used to make the fuel. That is, the plants in the ground absorb CO2. So HVO can significantly impact without a lot of reinvestment in equipment.

Frying oils and animal fats can also be used to produce renewable diesel forms, resulting in a molecule that's a pure—but synthetic—hydrocarbon, which means it's chemically identical to regular diesel.

Dillon: Komatsu recently announced its Power Agnostic Platform at the Mining Expo, and that's exciting. They're developing a next-generation haul truck with a conventional diesel engine that has the potential to run on HVO but will easily adapt to other energy sources later. So instead of getting a remanufactured diesel, you could put in a battery pack that uses the latest technology. Also, if a mine gets developed over several years and has the ramps in place and the links required for trolley assist, they can add a trolley system to that truck, supporting electrification.

The idea is that if you purchase a truck today, it's future-proofed. As new technologies become available, you can adopt them without reinvesting in another significant asset.

Cummins, another one of our partners, is also on a journey for sustainable mining solutions. Even though they were born on diesel and are over 100 years old, they understand that they need to innovate and have even acquired some companies with expertise in alternative fuels. It makes me feel optimistic that they're not just a conventional diesel company stuck in their ways.

At SMS Equipment, we have become the experts at deploying and supporting these technologies and ensuring customers understand the technology and its requirements. We assist customers so they can make the best choices for their operations.

The bottom line

Getting off diesel will be a massive component of a mine's efforts to achieve the goal of net zero mining. However, we expect much of the technology to accomplish net zero goals not to be practical for at least a decade. In the meantime, Komatsu and SMS Equipment is helping mines develop viable strategies for immediately beginning their net zero journeys without significant capital investment.
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