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Charged for change

The transition to BEVs from diesel-fueled machines is accelerating as mining companies discover advantages beyond a reduction in their environmental footprint. Epiroc’s zero-emissions facility in Sudbury epitomizes the change.

Shawn Samuels enters the meeting room of Epiroc’s facility dedicated to electrification in Lively, Ontario, after a 4-hour drive north from his home. He’s ready to sit for an interview, but there’s one thing he needs to do first: christen his Ford F-150 Lightning battery electric vehicle (BEV) at one of the facility’s two charging stations.

 

His new pick-up is representative of Epiroc’s transition to BEVs, both internally and beyond to its global mining fleet. The battery charger itself is agnostic, capable of revitalizing any vehicle, from a compact car to an underground loader, in a matter of hours.

 

Samuels is Business Line Manager of Electrification for Epiroc Canada. After working as a Sales Manager for several years “the company approached me in 2019 about taking on electrification. I initially declined because I didn’t think it would be enough of a challenge. But as the business line grew, it became evident that electrification was going to consume all of my time.”

On the corporate scale, Epiroc’s electrification transition started much earlier, when Kirkland Lake Gold (acquired by Agnico Eagle in 2022) decided to try BEVs to solve challenges associated with working at depths of up to two kilometers at the Macassa gold mine in northeastern Ontario. The mining company partnered with Epiroc and other OEMs a decade ago to become one of the first mines in the world to employ battery-operated machines, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 400 metric tons of CO₂ equivalent per year, according to Mining Technology (comparable to taking 1 200 gasoline-powered cars off the road.)

    

“The biggest driver for KLG was the heat generated by the diesel equipment,” says Jason Smith, North American Integration Manager for Meglab, a company Epiroc acquired to strengthen their position within the field of electrification. “The company was eager to test and develop BEVs because of the ventilation requirements at Macassa.” 

As KLG grew its electric mining fleet to incorporate 15 Epiroc BEVs, other mining companies summoned the courage to try transitioning from diesel to electric. They discovered that battery-operated machines could not only shrink their environmental footprint, but also drastically reduce the fumes, noise, heat, and vibrations generated by diesel machinery, cut down on ventilation needs and machine maintenance and tackle other challenges, such as the inefficiencies of operating internal combustion engines in the thin air at high altitudes.

 

“The environmental advantages are a no-brainer,” says Smith. “It’s the added value that comes from BEVs that is going to drive the transition even more in the future.” Currently, BEVs represent about 15% of the global mining equipment market. 

 

At the surface, BEV adoption has been slower because the downsides associated with operating diesel equipment are less acute. Besides, some surface drills already run on electricity using cables connected to a power source. All Epiroc’s Pit Viper rigs, for instance, are available in electric versions. The market for these rigs is growing as companies are drawn to the advantages of lower operating costs, less maintenance and lower emissions compared to diesel machines.

On a tour of the Lively facility, Mining & Construction magazine joins Andre Barriault and Marquis Martel, who are responsible for selling machines and supporting customers post purchase. We don our Epiroc yellow reflective vests and eye and ear protection and head for the workshop, where the BEV transition is taking place in real time.

 

On our way, we pass the acquisitions room, where employees from businesses Epiroc has acquired to support the electrification initiative are working in harmony. Next is the training room, packed with new recruits eager to learn how to execute the electrification strategy. Finally, in a room that looks like a Star Trek set, we meet the automation and application team for technologies such as Epiroc’s fleet management and monitoring solutions and Mobilaris Mining Intelligence. Project Engineer Lenin Dubon refers to Mobilaris Situational Awareness as the “Google Maps of the underground,” as he points to an overhead screen broadcasting Wi-Fi access points in an unidentified mine.

Further on, we climb a flight of metal stairs to a platform overlooking nearly a dozen mine trucks, drill rigs and loaders. Some are in the midst of being converted from diesel to electric before being delivered to the customer. A recently converted Scooptram loader is idling directly beneath us, but you’d hardly know it from the whisper-quiet hum and fumeless exhaust the machine emits compared to the familiar roar and stench of a diesel engine.

 

“The operators tell us they are less tired at the end of the shift when they run BEV equipment,” says Barriault. “They don’t have to scream at each other, breath in diesel fumes or have their bodies wracked by vibrations.”

 

Some of the technicians on the shop floor are readying machines for Glencore’s Onaping Depth, an underground nickel and copper mine in the Sudbury Basin expected to begin operations in 2024. At 2 600 meters below surface, the energy used to ventilate and cool the mine would have rendered Onaping uneconomical as a diesel-fueled operation. But by using BEVs exclusively, Glencore expects to reduce energy requirements by 44% for ventilation and by 30% for cooling. Epiroc will supply a total of 23 underground BEV loaders, mine trucks and drilling rigs to the mine.

 

Epiroc cut its Sudbury teeth at Vale’s Creighton mine. “We were lucky our biggest customer here decided to take the leap to BEV,” says Martel. “They’ve helped us a lot. To be able to work with the people buying our machines, to work out the bugs and make the machines last longer, is invaluable.”

 

The lithium-ion battery packs are manufactured by Swedish supplier Northvolt and assembled at a facility in Örebro, Sweden. Portable versions are also available. They consist of 672 cells in each module with eight modules per subpack. The modular system allows the batteries to be scaled depending on energy requirements and alleviates safety concerns associated with the potentially flammable battery chemistry.

 

“Nobody wants to put something underground that is going to catch fire,” says Samuels. “So when we design our safety system, we make sure every cell is self-isolating so that if a wire short-circuits or gases build up within the cell, the problem won’t spread.”

To support the BEV transition, Epiroc acquired Meglab, which specializes in providing electrification infrastructure solutions to mines. “This is where electrical and digital automation meet,” Kim Valade, Meglab’s General Manager, tells me. “We are not just looking at power, but at operations and automation so we can have the necessary information to provide power only when and where it’s needed to manage and optimize

energy use.”

 

The ventilation system in mining companies is traditionally recognized as an energy consumer. Meglab installs sensors to detect the presence of workers and airflow sensors to optimize efficiencies and for the highest air quality. The technology used provides real time information to the control room and enables BEVs charging stations to

be mapped in the mine layout, alerting operators when it’s their turn to charge. This optimizes operators’ time and avoids overloading the chargers.

 

“For the mine of the future to work, you need two highways: one for power and one for communication,” says Valade. “And these two infrastructures must interact to enable the BEV transition.”

 

By the time Samuels finishes his interview and attends to other tasks, he’s ready to head home in his almost fully charged Lightning to oversee the installation of a charger in his own garage, which shelters both the Ford and a Tesla. He leaves me with a parting thought.

 

“Mining is a capital-intensive business. Investors want to see that you have some kind of green plan, so it’s in a company’s best interest to adopt BEVs. And now that governments are getting involved and handing out money, you’ll really start to see BEV adoption accelerate.”

2024 Charging products Electrification Parts & services Canada Customer story Epiroc batteries