According to the consulting firm McKinsey, the mining industry contributes up to 7% of global carbon emissions each year. According to David Gerhardt, principal systems engineer for First Mode, a Seattle-based clean energy company, roughly 50% of this comes from mining haul trucks which are used to transport heavy rocks between different sites.
That is why First Mode is developing a zero-emission alternative to the truck’s diesel engine. To do so, it is turning to one of the world’s most abundant natural resources: hydrogen.
After launching the project in 2019, the company claims to have built the world’s largest mobile hydrogen power plant – a hybrid that combines hydrogen fuel cells with battery power. The power plant must generate two megawatts of electricity per second in order to power a vehicle of this size, which is enough energy to power 1,500 American homes.
Creating Mining Moves
Gerhardt claims that in order to meet that output target, they had to do something never done before. “The scale of fuel cells that we needed did not exist on the market,” he says.
Instead, First Mode combined several smaller fuel modules to create a 25-metric-ton hybrid power plant.
Gerhardt describes the power plant as weighing five elephants and capable of carrying a load weighing 100 elephants. “Imagine the force required to move 100 elephants up the hill at 15 kilometres per hour,” he adds.
The hydrogen-powered mining haul truck made its official debut this past May, three years after the project began, at Anglo-American’s Mogalakwena mine in South Africa.
According to the mining multinational that commissioned the development of First Mode’s power plant, an average mining haul truck in its fleet consumes 900,000 litres of diesel fuel per year.
While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been around since the 1960s, their adoption in the mining industry is relatively new, with many companies only now beginning to set emissions reduction targets. Prior to First Mode’s truck, the only other zero-emission vehicle of this scale was a Swiss all-electric mining haul truck.
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According to Chris Voorhees, CEO of First Mode, partnering with Anglo-American “has provided us with a platform and an entry point into what is a very complicated environment, which is the mine operation itself.”
However, according to Voorhees, the decarbonization of the industry extends beyond mining haul trucks to how raw materials are sourced, created, and manufactured.
As per the First Mode, the newly announced agreement will sharpen the focus on decarbonizing global mining operations and developing clean technology solutions for the world’s largest industrial applications.
“The investment supports First Mode’s capacity for growth, scaling to meet customer needs for clean energy across many industries, and investing in their most important product: their people.”
As of the end of last year, First Mode had 75 employees, three of whom were based in Perth, Western Australia, which is a mining hub. Those numbers have grown significantly since then, with First Mode now employing more than 100 people, including approximately 18 in Australia.
Anglo American’s investment was announced in the form of a Form D filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to the filing, First Mode was raising $32.5 million in funding, with $8.5 million in equity sold.
The Power Potential Of Hydrogen
More industries, ranging from ground transportation to aviation, have recently turned to hydrogen as an energy source. Germany unveiled 14 hydrogen-powered passenger trains in August. Airbus has also stated that it intends to test hydrogen-powered planes in 2026.
Glenn Rambach, an energy research engineer who has worked in the field for over four decades, believes hydrogen technology will eventually outperform electric batteries.
However, he adds that one of the primary challenges facing a project of this scope is sourcing and producing the type of hydrogen fuel required to support a fleet of mining haul trucks.
Rambach believes hybrid vehicles, which are powered by a combination of hydrogen and electric batteries, are best for powering heavy-duty vehicles and can “soften the challenge of any inadequacy in electricity or hydrogen infrastructure.”
However, the carbon emissions from using hydrogen as a fuel are determined by how the hydrogen is produced. Green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy sources, whereas blue hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. Green hydrogen detractors argue that using renewables to create another fuel is a waste of clean energy.
As per the First Mode, its hauling truck was designed to run on green hydrogen, and the company is working to develop a sustainable supply chain to support the trucks.