Context and challenges

As the mining industry seeks to transition to more sustainable operations, it was the diversified mining giant Anglo American that raised its hand to lead the way, tasking First Mode with creating a more sustainable power system for their mining haul trucks, and reducing their CO2 emissions. Our first target was the Komatsu 930E-4 Ultra Class Haul truck at their Mogalakwena platinum mine in South Africa. Weighing in at around 291 tons and standing three stories tall, the truck can carry up to 300 metric tons of ore as it travels from the open-pit mines to the processing plants. In doing so, it burns thousands of gallons of diesel. Taking out just one of these trucks and replacing it with a model that relies on a different kind of energy would keep CO2 emissions akin to nearly 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

First Mode’s plan was to exchange the current power system with a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell and battery powerplant. Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical process that generates electricity. The best part? The only byproduct is water. Although hydrogen fuel cells have existed for decades, rapid advances in technology are finally making their implementation a viable option for many industries, especially heavy machinery and transport. 

As we assessed the long road before us, several challenges became apparent: 

First, the truck was enormous, and anything at that scale was going to be a monumental task. 

Second, the assignment was not to build a new kind of truck, but to retrofit a truck originally built around an internal combustion engine with an entirely new fueling system. Whatever we put in place would need to fit within a confined space and fixed configuration, as well as flawlessly support the auxiliary systems. 

Third, there were the conditions of the mine environment to consider. Mines are dusty and hot, and there are workers everywhere. Our solution needed to keep the equipment safe from corrosive materials, find a way to regulate the thermal environment to keep the fuel cells below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a place where the temperature itself is often above that threshold, and be 100% safe within a fairly challenging and dynamic environment. 

Finally, this new fuel system wasn’t a vanity project. It didn’t just need to work, it needed to work as well or better than the current diesel-powered systems. When the truck hits a divot and needs power immediately, the power needs to be there. The fueling systems and onboard energy storage need to be refueled and recharged quickly and efficiently to minimize downtime. And the trucks need to operate on the leanest profile possible, as every ounce you add is one less ounce the truck can carry—even a 1% difference in capacity amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.  

With all this in mind, we set out to design the world’s largest fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). 

But first, a word about our sponsor. 

Partnerships and client relationships

First Mode’s client in this endeavor is Anglo American, a leading global mining company whose products are the essential ingredients in almost every aspect of modern life. Anglo American’s portfolio of world-class competitive operations, with a broad range of future development options, provides many of the future-enabling metals and minerals for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable world, and meets the fast-growing every day demands of billions of consumers. With its people at the heart of the business, Anglo American uses innovative practices and the latest technologies to discover new resources and to mine, process, move, and market the products to customers—safely and sustainably. Anglo American is a responsible producer of diamonds (through De Beers), copper, platinum group metals, premium quality iron ore and metallurgical coal for steelmaking, and nickel—with crop nutrients in development—and it’s committed to being carbon neutral across operations by 2040. First Mode signed a multi-year agreement in 2019 after proving our capabilities to systematically take the question of “what will we build” and turn it into a rallying cry of “let’s get it built.” 

What we did 

When you’re building something that’s never been built before, you have to be willing to embrace complexity. First Mode excels in this environment. With any new endeavor, there are bound to be months of testing and trials before we reach the finished product. First Mode stays focused and energized in our pursuit, as every round of testing reveals new opportunities for fine-tuning and optimizing for an impeccable design result. 

There are two strategies we implemented to tackle the task before us: robust testing, and relentless project management. 

At the very beginning, we spent weeks studying and measuring all the conditions our FCEV would face. We started with basic physics calculations—how much room will we have, how much rough voltage is needed? This initial process quickly ruled out our original exploration of a pure battery solution. Batteries can’t be hot swapped, and there’s no time for recharging during the mine’s schedule. Instead, we turned our sights to hydrogen, and began exploring a battery and hydrogen combination that would yield optimal performance. 

The next phase of testing and measuring was more robust. We spent time in the mines, observing and operating the trucks themselves. We even outfitted the truck with sensors and performed a 3D scan to measure how it would work at different temperatures, what routes it traversed, and what power was needed. All of this data was used to test and rule out a wide array of options and configurations, ultimately yielding a design perfectly suited to the challenges at hand. 

In 2019, we received sign-off on the preliminary design and began our deep dive into the details and systems engineering. On a project of this scale, expert project management is an absolute necessity. First Mode coordinated and oversaw every aspect of the design, sourcing, and construction. Each harness and plug, every aspect of how the software works with the mechanical and thermal systems—all of these parts required minute attention to the details as well as a high-level understanding of how they would interact with each other. We negotiated between thousands of parts and multiple teams to craft a solution that would slide right into the existing framework of the truck. 

The final phase of the project is even more testing, first at our facility in Seattle, and then on-site in South Africa. Every opportunity to improve and tweak the design is a chance to make sure our solution performs better than what was there before. This last step is critical in how First Mode approaches our projects. We offer our clients not just a hypothetical solution, but a tested, complete system with all the support necessary for success. 

The impact 

When up and running, this retrofitted 930E-4 will be the largest fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) on Earth. Anglo American’s plan is to retrofit 40 trucks starting around 2024, with all fuel generated by a local solar plant, and eventually roll out the system to the other 400 vehicles in the fleet. These changes in conjunction with the other aspects of the FutureSmart Mining™ program aim to reduce Anglo American’s greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030 and to help them become fully carbon neutral by 2040. 

The ramifications of a successful FCEV for mining could not only change the mining sector but have widespread uses across the heavy machinery industry. After all, mining represents some of the harshest conditions and therefore most difficult applications of the FCEV technologies. Comparatively, operations like ocean vessels require much less control for thermal conditions or space constraints. There are a myriad of other opportunities for FCEVs to cut global emissions and provide a sustainable alternative to diesel. First Mode is honored to be at the forefront of the charge for change.