Sustainable mining is believed to be a crucial component of the mass-scale electrification of transportation, as the present battery technology for electrified vehicles calls for minerals like nickel, lithium, and cobalt. Beyond the overall objective of achieving net zero in the world by 2050, the mining industry provides a great opportunity to develop a customised response to reduce carbon emissions in the way it operates. While mining has been slow to implement BEVs in comparison to the automotive sectors, there is a huge potential for widespread electrification of the industry.

As per the analysis of GlobalData’s mines and projects database, India and the US are believed to have the highest overall amount of mining equipment installed at various sites. At least some of this equipment is supposed to be electrified.

However, Panama leads the world in the field of electrically powered equipment, followed by Zambia, Sweden, and Namibia.

The analysis also indicates that countries with the biggest equipment portfolios have the least number of electrified vehicles.

Several of the countries that have the highest concentration of mining equipment, like India and South Africa, the US, Indonesia, and Australia, as well as South Africa, could therefore offer significant investment opportunities to firms that are able to electrify mining operations on a large scale.

The mining equipment that is electrified typically consists of several models that are powered by batteries, cable-tethered, or overhead trolley lines.

Research conducted by GlobalData indicates that electric trolley trucks are already able to provide savings of as much as 50% in terms of fuel consumption and costs. However, battery technology for these vehicles is in its early stages.

Electrification of underground operations

Based on an analysis by GlobalData, surface mines dominate the market while underground mining companies still have a major share in the industry.

Ukraine before the ongoing invasion by Russia held the no.1 spot in the world for the most underground mining projects, but its mining sector is in a state of uncertainty going into the future.

A deeper analysis of GlobalData’s database of electric mining equipment indicates that electrification is divided between different types of mines, with cable-tethered and trolley line machines dominating surface mining, while battery technology is gaining prominence with underground mining operations.

According to a study undertaken by the University of Adelaide in Australia and Universidad de Concepcion in Chile, electrifying underground mines could result in substantial advantages. They point to a study that shows that electrified equipment can provide the potential for energy savings of “40% in ventilation and 30% in cooling”, thereby resulting in reduced operating expenses.

Furthermore, the security and well-being of workers could be improved by reducing the “risk of flashover and electrocution” as well as the removal of diesel particulate matter (DPM).

Normet is one of the companies that offers BEVs specifically made to be effective in underground conditions. The company’s SmartDrive technology is built on a modular BEV architecture that is “designed to optimise energy consumption and performance” and comes with “zero local emissions”.

Normet equipment offering and R&D Vice President Mark Ryan told Mining Technology about the reality of tunnels and underground mines which are maintained by machines that run on diesel engines.

Ryan said: “In a tunnel environment think of something that would be running in excess of 100 degrees constantly beside you – and you’re in that environment for hours and hours… listening to the engine, getting the heat from that engine, the exhaust gas is also hot coming out, heating up the air, it can be pretty miserable actually.”

According to Ryan, miners reported that Normet’s SmartDrive technology can improve their overall health, which results in lower levels of fatigue. The combination of less noise, heat, and DPMs has been reported to make workers “feel better at the end of the day.”

Ryan added: “I think that it’s only when you’re down there working and you see the difference, you hear the difference, you taste the difference. Being able to do the same job with a battery – it just really changes the game for the person in that environment.”

Health hazards with diesel

A study carried out by the Sustainable Minerals Institute at The University of Queensland (Australia) and the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at The University of British Columbia (Canada) has highlighted the known risks of DPM on the human body.

The authors highlight that even though “40% of an underground mine’s energy outlay” is spent on ventilation, these systems cannot effectively reduce the number of diesel particulates to a safe amount.

They refer to an article written for ABC news Australia which stressed the serious ramifications of exposure for long periods to diesel nano-particles even in mines that are well-ventilated.

As per the report which is cited by ABC, underground miners working near diesel engines may be exposed to more than 100-fold “normal environmental concentrations” of nano diesel particulate matter (nDPM). The particles are believed to have considerable health-related implications in the long run. They are thought to be “beyond the human lungs” that “diffuse into the blood stream” to cause a series of deadly ailments.

The most well-known effects are cancers, headaches, short-term irritation, systemic inflammation, and smoking-like cardio-respiratory responses. From a cold economic standpoint, the consequences of these long-term health issues among mining workers could be a significant influence on mining safety and productivity.

A different case study that was cited in the Sustainable Minerals Institute report about Newmont Goldcorp’s Borden mine in Canada argued that several benefits have already been realised from the electrified equipment it has. These included better security, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and costs of ventilation, “reduced megawatt hours of 33,000 per year” as well as significant improvements in staff health.

Reportedly, the workers said that even though they have to change to modern technology, they wouldn’t wish to return to working in conventional underground mines alongside diesel engines.

Beyond the financial advantages of electrified mining equipment, Normet’s Mark Ryan stressed the importance to consider the human impacts of implementing BEVs rather than continuing with diesel-powered engines underground.

Ryan said: “If we forget about the sales pitch for a moment, it’s about those people and their quality of life down there with this technology.”

Opportunities and challenges

Many mines around the world are not able to benefit from a substantial amount of electrified equipment and there’s a noticeable absence of this technology in countries that have the most extensive mining portfolios. This could be a huge opportunity in the future for the electrification of mining since the market is quite new and is ripe to invest in.

There are a lot of challenges though to overcome in the process of weaning the industry away from diesel in favour of BEVs, especially in the area of surface mining where battery technology is still in the testing stage.

In addition to technological issues, mining faces a growing gap in skills and pressure to reduce carbon emissions across the board and this is dependent on renewable energy sources that aren’t always readily accessible.

Ryan said: “In certain parts of the world, mining activities are generally hindered due to the absence of energy. The demand isn’t enough to meet the supply.”

This makes the switch to electric equipment in certain situations a lot more difficult. This is coupled with the scepticism of the industry about the risk-reward ratio when the adoption of new technologies is an obstacle to the sector in its journey to net zero.

But it is true with the Sustainable Minerals Institute report concluding that the acquisition of mineral deposits that are located in deep and remote regions can make it difficult for firms to remain competitive in the long run unless they adapt and take on the risks to be innovative.

Ryan shared this view, noting that while companies might appear to have natural scepticism, the ongoing success stories in the industry paired with larger tunnelling and mining challenges could aid in bringing about the process of change.

Mining companies might need to consider a long-term perspective taking into consideration how they can contribute to global sustainability as well as worker safety and their own viability and longevity in an ever-changing marketplace. If they are able to do so, the overall benefits could far outweigh the initial costs.