From environmental impact to greater infrastructure efficiency, the electric revolution is set to transform how we collect raw materials.
Once again, electrification is set to revolutionize society and industry. While most of the focus has been on sleek, new battery-powered cars or finding ways to move family homes off the grid – what about the industries that make those products possible?
The power of electrification has the potential to dramatically impact almost every part of the supply chain, right down to how industries mine for and collect the raw materials that are needed.
The global mining industry is vital to the production of everything from phones to airplanes. For decades, however, it’s been relying on diesel-powered equipment that brings with it challenges unique to the mine environment: heat and exhaust fumes that need to be ventilated from the mines, refuelling requirements and bulk that necessitates larger and harder-to-excavate tunnels. Couple that with maintenance and operating costs, and you’ve got an industrial niche ripe for revolution.
Companies like leading global mining equipment supplier Sandvik are well-positioned to spearhead the change to electrification of mining. Founded in 1862 in Sweden, Sandvik has grown to become an industry leader in engineering innovation in areas spanning from mining solutions to metal-cutting tools and advanced materials.
From innovative drill design to demonstrating environmental consciousness by pioneering discussions around carbide scrap recycling, Sandvik has positioned itself as a leader in the production of mining equipment. Now, they’re leading the reinvention of mining in the shift toward electrification and the exciting ways in which it can make mining a safer, cleaner and more profitable undertaking.
Moving mining forward into the era of electrification
For the past several decades, the mining industry has been driven by diesel. Diesel equipment needs to be designed to house combustion engines, which bring size requirements that can create inefficiencies in an industry in which tunnel space is at a premium. And it’s not just about drills and trucks. According to Henrik Ager, president of Business Area Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions,. “In underground mining, sustainability and productivity tend to go together,” he says. “A big portion of the greenhouse gas emissions stem from the infrastructure that runs for an underground mine, regardless of whether you produce nothing at all or if you produce a lot.”
What this means for the engineers at Sandvik is that electrification is not just about slapping a battery and an electric motor into pre-existing equipment and calling it a day. When crafting the mining equipment of the future, it’s important to rethink everything from form factor to how “refueling” — in this case, recharging batteries — takes place. “We’ve designed the BEV loaders and trucks around their electric driveline,” says Ager. “This equipment is designed to be battery electric, ground up. That allows us to best utilize the opportunities the new technology brings, rather than accommodating it into an existing structure.”
To handle the recharging issue, the team at Sandvik not only designed swappable batteries, but they also designed this swapping process to be fast and easy, without any major infrastructure needs. “This means that as the machine moves around in the mine and it is time to change the battery, the operator drives to a battery swapping bay. The equipment drops down the depleted battery and picks another one up. This whole process is done in minutes, and during that time, the operator controls the procedure, staying inside the equipment cabin,” Ager explains. “You don’t need any overhead cranes or forklifts during the process. It makes it a lot more agile as you’re not tied to specific heavy infrastructure. The burden on the existing electric infrastructure is much less.”
Electrification makes environmental and economic sense
Sandvik’s vision for the future of mining equipment is one in which these new, electric machines not only improve working conditions and sustainability, but also productivity and profitability.
First, there’s the potential improvement in environmental health and safety for workers that comes with the reduction of exhaust emissions. And these environmental benefits extend beyond the mine itself, which is important in a world facing the challenges of climate change. “It’s exciting,” enthuses Ager, “because we have an opportunity to change the environment, both locally and globally.”
Of course, convincing an industry to adopt new technologies also involves demonstrating the impact on the bottom line. Here, too, electric mining equipment stands to change things for the better. With its reduced emission and heating profile, it cuts ventilation and cooling costs, and the improved design of electric equipment means tunnels can be smaller, requiring less excavation, less material waste and hence less cost.
According to Ager, the economic benefit of electrification is already in place and will only grow over time. “When you compare electric equipment with traditional diesel equipment today, and you compare the capital expenditure and the operating expenditure, when we look at the full life of the machine, they are on par with each other today. The capital expenditure is higher, but the operating expenditure is lower — the energy cost and maintenance cost. When you factor in the savings that the mine can make on ventilation and cooling, then there’s already a strong business case for electric.”
Underground – the future is electric
While the economic and environmental improvements offered by electric mining equipment are already evident, the transition is still in its initial stages, and technology innovations driven by the likes of Sandvik stand to make the mine of the future a much safer, more efficient operation. “I see electrification in mining picking up pace tremendously,” Ager says. “We’re now in a trial period where we’re trying machines in the production environment, putting them to the test to prove they are equally as reliable and productive as the alternatives.
So, where do things go from here? “The mine of the future is automated,” Ager says, adding that “there are very few people underground. It’s digitalized, so everybody and everything is connected and communicating with each other, and ‘thinking’ using artificial intelligence to figure out where to go and when. And it’s fully electric.”