• June 24, 2022
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Is hydrogen a sustainable future we can rely on?

Is hydrogen a sustainable future we can rely on?

Presented by Pickles

How companies are using hydrogen in their future emissions pledges

Climate change is quickly becoming a huge challenge that both governments and corporations are trying to tackle in order to meet future emissions targets and maintain global temperatures to well below pre-industrial levels.

The response by stakeholders has predominantly been regarding the decarbonisation of sectors such as energy, transportation and resources to assist in the goal of a low-carbon future. For energy, this has been in the way of wind, solar and hydro power. For transportation, electric vehicles that feed from lithium batteries which ideally are charged from renewable energy sources. The resources sector however lacks a solution but does have one very exciting innovation on the horizon that is drawing interest from some of the biggest companies in the world – hydrogen.

Hydrogen is a clean and versatile source of energy with an almost infinite supply that can be used in fuel cells or internal combustion engines. Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity through hydrogen reacting to oxygen across an electrochemical cell to produce electricity, water and fractional amounts of heat. When mixed with natural gas, a hydrogen fuel mixture can be burned in combustion gas turbines, creating cleaner energy than fossil fuel alternatives. 

Hydrogen Cell Vehicle. Source: BMW

Mining companies have taken it upon themselves to find innovative ways to modernise their fleets so that they too can become less reliant on carbon burning fuels like petrol and diesel. Anglo-American is one company that has set ambitious goals to reduce its emissions footprint. By 2040, the company aims to be carbon neutral across all operations with some reaching their targets as early as 2030. By 2023, 56% of Anglo’s global grid supply will be sourced from renewable energy. One of the renewable energy paths that the company is investing in is that of hydrogen, with the assumption that it will make up a fifth of total final energy consumed by 2050.

One way in which it will implement hydrogen power within its energy mix is through its fleet of haulage trucks. NuGenTM is Anglo-American’s zero emissions haulage solution which was designed from scratch by the company’s FutureSmart Mining program which is responsible for developing and implementing step-change innovations. Currently, up to 8-% of Anglo’s diesel emissions come from trucks alone, with each truck guzzling an extraordinary 900,000 litres of fuel a year.

  • The truck is hydrogen powered, which will be produced on site and will have a load capacity of 290t.
  • Hydrogen enters the fuel cell from the tank which mixes with oxygen to create water in a chemical reaction catalysed by platinum. This generates electricity which powers the motors with the only emission from the vehicle being water vapor.
  • The truck uses a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell providing roughly half of the power and a battery pack the other half, to allow energy recovery from braking.
  • Harnessing the energy created when driving downhill helps to reduce the need for external energy. This energy can be stored in the battery, along with the hydrogen which can extend the truck’s range.
  • A reduction in the out of cycle time for the trucks is present too, since hydrogen refueling is significantly faster than recharging batteries.
  • The haul truck system uses multiple fuel cells that deliver up to 800kW of power.
  • It uses a unique software that manages power and energy between the fuel cells, batteries, and vehicle drivetrain.
  • Is the world’s lightest 510t total laden weight truck.

One of the key issues with implementing a renewable energy solution is the infrastructure that will need to be incorporated into scaling the project, The pilot for the NuGenTM haulage project, which is being conducted in South Africa, has addressed this by building a zero emission vehicles hydrogen production, storage and refueling complex at its Mogalakwena mine site that incorporates the largest electrolyser in Africa and a solar PV field to support haul truck operations. At the completion of this pilot program, the plan is to retrofit 40 diesel haul trucks with hydrogen engines with the eventual aim to fit all 400 of its trucks. 

This initiative shows great promise in not only transitioning diesel thirsty mining trucks into clean, emission free assets but also provides a complete blueprint for other miers to replicate. The importance of creating a machine that delivers and operates on par with its diesel predecessors is vital, as is proving that the required infrastructure can be executed in a way that is effective and aligns with the mine’s production targets. With other companies like Fortescue Metals Group, one of the world’s largest iron ore miners, also eyeing the technology intently, the next decade is proving to be an excitingly innovative one within the sector. 

The widespread industry appeal of hydrogen is dampered only by concerns surrounding the safety measures needed in order to transport the substance between long distances. Hydrogen molecules are very small, are prone to leakage and are extremely flammable. This creates challenges for containing and transporting the gas in the safest way possible while still retaining the matter’s purity. These obstacles may prove to require the development of new infrastructure if large-scale operations are to make the transition to hydrogen. 

It’s interesting to note that it is the miners themselves who are pushing hard for the research and development of hydrogen powered vehicles, not the OEMs who are currently seen as passively following the miners in this sustainable direction.

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