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Canada takes lead in replacing dirty diesel with electric vehicles in mines


Canada’s mining industry has tapped into the expertise of two small companies to solve two of the biggest challenges facing ultra-deep mining: the health and safety of workers and the high costs of ventilation.

A Sudbury, Ontario manufacturer will hit the market in 2018 with another new electric vehicle that bolsters the business case for deep underground mining, while creating a cleaner and healthier environment for workers.

With support from the business-led Ultra-Deep Mining Network (UDMN), Industrial Fabrication Inc. (IFI) partnered with FVT Research Inc. of Pitt Meadows, B.C. to develop a new battery-powered electric drive system that can replace diesel drives in existing heavy-duty utility vehicles. The system will be designed as an OEM product and as an aftermarket rebuild system.

This world-first technology will significantly reduce ventilation, fuel and maintenance costs. Switching to electric also creates a quieter working environment and eliminates the health risk of diesel exhaust fumes, which the World Health Organization has classified as a Group 1 carcinogen.

The diminishing availability of mineral resources in surface mines is driving the exploitation of ultra-deep deposits (over 2.5 km) of gold, nickel, copper and other specialized metals once thought inaccessible and uneconomical. But going deep comes with challenges, most notably the high costs associated with pumping fresh air deeper underground. Ventilation can account for 30-50% of a mine’s total annual operating costs.

“Within five to ten years, I expect there won’t be any mining companies putting diesel underground. We’re talking about a dynamic shift in how underground mines are operated,” says Todd Pratt, CEO, FVT Research.

IFI and FVT Research are already demonstrating the power of electric vehicles to address these challenges in both ultra-deep and other underground mines. The companies collaborated to develop an electric drive system for IFI’s 150-horsepower utility trucks, the MINECAT UT150-EMV‍®, which entered the market in early 2016. But the companies needed closer linkages to Canada’s biggest mining companies and financial assistance to scale up the technology for 250-horsepower utility vehicles which weigh up to 18,000 kg, compared to about 5,400 kg for standard utility trucks. These larger trucks make up about half of mining vehicles used underground.

“Having UDMN’s support has been critical to this project. Not only did they provide funding for research and development, they also linked us with some of the big mining companies who are very important customers to us. That’s one of the key reasons for working with UDMN—they have excellent contacts in industry,” says Keith King, General Manager of IFI, which builds mining vehicles at its new 34,000 square-foot manufacturing facility.

“We’re also finding other potential partners in the UDMN network, which is exciting because our technologies have applications in other areas of mining, such as back-up power and high efficiency pumps,” says Pratt.

Hosted by the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), UDMN is supported by members of the mining, and oil and gas industries. Its membership includes the three deepest mines in Canada. UDMN aims to become the leading expert in ultra-deep (below 2.5 km) research and innovation and to solve the challenges that impact resource extraction in these environments.

The new system being developed will offer a greener and cost competitive alternative to diesel. Current electric mining vehicles are less than 60% efficient and use a tether (a long extension cord). In comparison, the UDMN-supported system will be more than 90% efficient, produce as much power as a 250-horsepower diesel engine, be able to climb a 20% grade, stay charged for a full eight-hour shift and need just two hours to recharge.

“The biggest technical challenge has been that there are very few off-the-shelf components for a drive system like this so we are developing components from the ground up, right from the circuit board level,” says Pratt, whose company specializes in electric drive systems.

Better working conditions

Workplace health and safety are also big benefits. Electric vehicles emit almost no noise, no vibration and very little heat, compared to diesel engines.

“The obvious benefit is no exhaust emissions at all,” says Pratt. “An enormous amount of fresh air needs to be pushed underground to dilute the particulate in the diesel exhaust.”

Switching to electric vehicles will save $30,000 to $200,000 in ventilation costs per year per vehicle, depending on its size. With the average mine using between 80 and 100 vehicles, the savings could be as high as $20 million annually.

Electric vehicles also allow mining companies to increase production by adding additional vehicles without having to add more ventilation. “We’ve heard of mines almost running out of ventilation but still want to develop,” says Dave Schmidt, Engineering Manager at IFI. “Rather than spending the capital to upgrade ventilation they can take some diesel utility equipment out of service and put in electric which gives them surplus ventilation for another piece of production equipment.”

Because electric vehicles have about 1,000 fewer parts in the battery power drive train than diesel drives, they are also more reliable and require less maintenance. As well, companies would save on diesel fuel costs. “The vehicle we’re targeting uses $12,000 to $15,000 of diesel fuel a year. We’re going to convert that down to less than $1,000 in electric power annually,” says Pratt.

Looking ahead, the companies already have their eye on designing electric drives for larger 400-horsepower production vehicles, including 45,000 kg scoops.