The world’s first hydrogen-powered haul truck could help clean up the mining industry

CNN  — 

Standing three stories tall and weighing 500 metric tons fully loaded, a typical mining haul truck is one of the largest vehicles on the planet.

It also happens to be major emissions contributor in a pollution-heavy sector. According to consulting firm McKinsey, the mining industry annually contributes up to 7% of the world’s carbon emissions. Roughly 50% of that comes from the haulage trucks, which are used to transport heavy rocks between different sites, says David Gerhardt, principal systems engineer for First Mode, a Seattle-based clean energy company.

That’s why First Mode is designing a zero-emission solution to replace the truck’s diesel engine. To do so, it is looking to one of the most abundant natural resources in the world: hydrogen.

After starting the project in 2019, the company says it has created the world’s largest mobile hydrogen power plant – a hybrid that integrates hydrogen fuel cells with battery power.

In order to power a vehicle of this size, the power plant has to generate two megawatts of electricity each second, which is enough energy to power 1,500 American homes.

Making mining moves

To reach that output goal, Gerhardt says they had to do something that had never been done before. “The scale of fuel cells that we were looking for didn’t exist on the market,” he notes.

Instead, First Mode combined multiple smaller fuel modules to create a hybrid power plant weighing 25 metric tons.

Gerhardt describes the power plant as weighing as much as five elephants and capable of transporting a load weighing the same as 100 elephants. “You can imagine the power that it takes to move 100 elephants up the hill at 15 kilometers an hour,” he adds.

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A look at the world's first hydrogen-powered haul truck
00:53 - Source: CNN

This past May, three years after the project began, the hydrogen-powered haul truck made its official debut at the Mogalakwena mine in South Africa owned by Anglo American.

The mining multinational, which commissioned the development of First Mode’s power plant, estimates an average mining haul truck in its fleet consumes 900,000 liters of diesel fuel a year.

While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been around since the 1960s, the implementation of this technology across the mining industry is new, with many companies just beginning to set emissions reduction goals. Before First Mode’s truck, the only other zero-emission vehicle of this scale was an all-electric mining haul truck in Switzerland.

First Mode CEO Chris Voorhees says partnering with Anglo American “has provided us a platform and an entry point into what is a very complicated environment, which is the mine operation itself.”

However, Voorhees notes that decarbonization of the industry goes beyond the haul trucks themselves to how the raw materials are sourced, created, and manufactured.

Hydrogen’s power potential

Recently, more industries, ranging from ground transport to aviation, have been looking to hydrogen as an energy source. In August, Germany unveiled 14 hydrogen-powered passenger trains. Airbus has also announced plans to test hydrogen-powered planes in 2026.

Energy research engineer Glenn Rambach, who has spent more than four decades working in the field, says hydrogen technology can eventually outperform electric batteries.

With its first proof of concept at work in the South African mine, First Mode says it will utilize real-time data to improve on the design for future trucks.

But building the infrastructure to source and create the type of hydrogen fuel needed to support a fleet of haul trucks, he adds, is one of the primary challenges facing a project of this scope.

Rambach believes hybrid vehicles, powered by a combination of hydrogen and electric batteries, are best for powering vehicles in heavy industries and can “soften the challenge of any inadequacy in electricity or hydrogen infrastructure.”

Yet the carbon emissions from using hydrogen as a fuel depend on how the hydrogen is made. “Green” hydrogen is created by using renewable energy sources, while “blue” hydrogen creation uses fossil fuels. But critics of green hydrogen say using renewables to produce another fuel is a waste of clean energy.

First Mode says its hauling truck was designed to run on green hydrogen, and creating a sustainable supply chain to support the trucks is something the company is working to address.

“We want to see it through,” Voorhees says. “It’s seeing this in mine sites around the world being successfully implemented in a way that allows mining to actually transform.”