Mining companies are responsible for a huge chunk of our carbon emissions. One reason why is that the process requires big trucks to haul those minerals and ore around. With heavy loads and lots of back-and-forth travel, a fleet of these diesel-powered dump trucks are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in surface mining operations. But everything from our phones to our attempt to transition to renewables relies on mining a lot of materials. One mining company is trying to balance those contradictions by reducing its truck-related carbon output with the world’s first hydrogen-powered mining truck.
Seattle-based engineering firm First Mode will develop the technology for Anglo American, a global mining company that produces platinum, diamonds, copper, nickel, iron ore, and more. First Mode signed a $13.5 million multiyear contract with Anglo American to develop this and other carbon-free mining technology. The effort is part of Anglo American’s FutureSmart Mining program, which aims to reduce mining’s environmental footprint and address a wide array of sustainability challenges in the industry, from carbon output to water use.
Hydrogen fuel is a zero-emission fuel, meaning no CO2 is produced as it burns, but it’s still important to create that fuel in a green way. Rhae Adams, vice president of Business Development at First Mode, says that First Mode is looking from start to finish when developing this truck technology, so that it’s truly a carbon-free process, including how it sources the hydrogen. The hydrogen-powered haul truck is scheduled to be deployed sometime in 2020.
But how good is it to use a carbon-free truck to haul around extractive materials that are part of a bigger environmentally harmful practice? “On the surface, it seems ironic,” Adams says. “However, mining and metals is actually in the unique position of being a requirement for a future based on renewable energy.” Copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, aluminum, and rare earths are what power solar panels, EV powertrains, batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, and wind turbines.
Experts have made it clear that we have to move away from fossil fuels, and even though higher demand for renewables means we’ll have to mine more of these materials, it’s worth that effort. The important thing, then, is to make that mining process as environmentally friendly as possible. “To hit the scale of power the planet needs today and the growing amount in the future, recycling won’t be enough, although it will still be an important component,” Adams says. “To create a positive feedback loop, it’s important that we start at the top of the cycle in mines and work to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon in their operation.”