The northern Mexican state of Durango looks a lot like the wild west. With its arid, dusty landscape, dotted with cacti that fan out like thorny green hands, and a backdrop of broad, sloping gray, green and purple mountains, Durango has been known for decades as the enduring image of what was once frontier life in Hollywood films. Since the 1950s, the sparsely populated state has served as the visual representation of Mexico in dozens of Hollywood movies, including westerns such as The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Unforgiven, which were filmed there and earned it the nickname Movieland.
Visitors to the village of Velardeña, which has palm-lined streets and a view of a jagged, dry mountain range in the distance, are struck by the sense of stepping back in time. Just over ten years ago, before the mining conglomerate Grupo Peñoles opened one of its flagship zinc mines here in 2013, Velardeña was a ghost town that had been almost entirely abandoned by its residents.
Now, thanks to Epiroc engineers, this tiny town is home to one of the global mining industry’s foremost technologies: the battery-driven electric loader Scooptram ST14 SG, previously named Scooptram ST14 Battery.
The loader, which was introduced at the Velardeña mine in the spring of 2022, has been lauded by Peñoles employees, and not least the operators, who say the new technology provides a cleaner, cooler, quieter and more efficient experience to their day-to-day operations, which are often performed under challenging conditions such as intense heat, noxious gases and deafening noise.
“We believe that the use of batteries, instead of diesel, is the future of mining,” said Luis Humberto Vazquez, the director of the mines at Peñoles and one of the company’s highest ranking executives, when Mining & Construction magazine sat down with him in Torreón, a town only a short distance from the Velardeña mine.
“We are convinced that the use of batteries will continue to evolve to make the industry more efficient and better optimize operations while reducing our environmental impact.”
Deep inside the Fantasma mine shaft at the Velardeña complex, the rumble of mammoth machinery, such as loaders and underground haul and dump trucks, reverberates like thunder in the narrow drifts. While the temperature is moderate in the ventilated cavern that houses a Scooptram ST14 SG and two batteries from Epiroc, it rises the deeper miners descend into the mine.
The Fantasma mine – which means ghost in Spanish – includes a maze of tunnels burrowed into the side of a mountain some 1 450 meters above sea level, and there is a steady flow of trucks and machinery entering the shaft to extract zinc, the primary
metal produced at Velardeña, as well as copper and lead. Historically, loaders, trucks and other types of machinery that enter the mine have used diesel, but in 2022 Peñoles paired up with Epiroc to introduce a clean power option – Scooptram ST14 SG. The results were apparent immediately.
“I’m not exposed to as much noise or as many toxic gases as I am when operating a diesel-fueled truck,” Eduardo
García Vaquera, a Peñoles operator, said of Scooptram ST14 SG. “It makes for a much more comfortable and clean work experience with far less heat and no emissions of toxic gases.”
Grupo Peñoles – the world’s biggest silver producer and one of Mexico’s most emblematic and storied institutions – and its sister company Fresnillo “always seek to be at the forefront of changes in the industry,” said Luis Humberto. He has more than 40 years of experience as a miner, and says that both he and Peñoles understand the challenges of the mining industry and are always looking to improve worker security and health and reduce the hefty ventilation costs associated with the liberation of trapped diesel fumes.
Thus, implementing a Scooptram ST14 SG, which is the first batterydriven electric loader of its kind to be implemented in mining operations in Latin America, was an easy decision at Velardeña, where Peñoles employs around 1 350 people – about half the population of the village – and produces nine metric tons of zinc on a daily basis, according to Vázquez.
To date, maintenance workers and operators of the Scooptram ST14 SG, a 14-metric ton capacity underground loader that is an impressive 11 meters long, rave about the improvements of the new loader in comparison to the diesel loaders that were used before. They say that Scooptram ST14 SG provides an easier and smoother driving experience and the elevated cab is comfortable, roomy and provides much better visibility, particularly when taking sharp turns in narrow and dark mine caverns.
“If I had to choose between one or the other, I’d choose the battery loader one hundred percent of the time,” said Vaquera, who has been a Scooptram operator for three years. “When driving a diesel loader, you experience a lot of vibration, but with a battery-driven electric loader, you feel nothing.”
Vaquera and José Rivero, Peñoles’s maintenance planning advisor at the Velardeña mine, agree that changing a battery on Scooptram ST14 SG – instead of having to refill a tank with diesel – has brought immediate improvements to efficiency and the speed of operations within the mine.
In the cavern designated for Scooptram ST14 SG, there is a wide parking slip for the loader in the center of the chamber. This slip is flanked on each side of the cave by two yellow-and-black striped platforms custom-fitted for the loader’s batteries. Beyond each platform are two electric charging stations similar to those you might see for electric automobiles, and a thin, sleek overhead crane system that stretches the width of the chamber and is used to transport the batteries.
When it is time to replace a battery, Vaquera controls the slim red overhead Epiroc crane by remote control, clasping the short, compact yellow-and-gray ST14 battery, which is about 2.5 meters wide, and transporting it from the loader to the platform. The process takes just minutes, and Rivero, who has worked for Peñoles for 33 years, says the battery has streamlined their daily work at the mine.
“It’s improved security, productivity and reliability and reduced our costs,” Rivero said, adding that each of the two Epiroc batteries offers a charge of more than four hours. “There is a lot less noise and far fewer defects compared to a diesel loader and, in my role, the electric battery requires far less maintenance and upkeep.”
• Founded in the state of Durango in 1887, Peñoles is one of the world’s biggest silver producers and one of Mexico’s most storied companies.
• Peñoles is a top global producer of refined zinc and sodium sulfate.
• Latin America’s leader in production of refined gold and lead.
• Group subsidiary Fresnillo plc is publicly traded on the London and Mexican stock exchanges.
• Peñoles is part of Grupo Bal, a private consortium of independent Mexican companies overseen by the Bailleres family.