The project

As the mining industry seeks to transition to more sustainable operations, diversified mining giant Anglo American is leading the way, tasking First Mode with creating a lower-carbon power system for their mining haul trucks.

First Mode’s first target was the diesel-fueled Komatsu 930E-4 ultra-class haul trucks at Anglo’s platinum mine at Mogalakwena, South Africa. Weighing in at around 210 metric tons and standing three stories tall, each of these trucks can carry 290 metric tons of ore as it travels from the open-pit mine to the processing plant. Retrofitting just one of these trucks with a powerplant that runs on hydrogen instead of diesel would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2,700 metric tons a year — about the same as taking 700 passenger cars off the road.

For the initial prototype, First Mode’s plan was to replace the truck’s diesel engine with a hybrid fuel cell and battery powerplant. The fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity (and water); the batteries store up the electricity for use when bursts of extra power are needed. 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 task, several challenges became apparent.

First, the truck was enormous, so we would need multiple copies of some of the biggest batteries and fuel cells available. 

Second, the assignment was not to build a new kind of truck, but to retrofit a truck originally built around an internal combustion engine. 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 harsh environments that are resource and safety-constrained. Our solution needed to keep the equipment safe from corrosive materials, find a way to keep the fuel cells below 100°F in a place where the ambient temperature is often higher than that, and be 100% safe within a 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 at least as well as the current diesel-powered system. When the truck hits a bump in the road and needs extra power immediately, the power has 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 kilogram you add is one less kilogram the truck can carry, and 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). 

The partnership

First Mode’s client in this endeavor was Anglo American, a leading global mining company whose portfolio provides many of the future-enabling metals and minerals for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable world. The company is committed to aligning its portfolio with the needs of a low carbon world and set an industry-leading goal of carbon neutrality across their operations by 2040. With haul trucks representing up to 80% of diesel emissions at Anglo American sites, achieving diesel-free mobility stands to make a major contribution toward the carbon neutrality target.

In 2019, First Mode signed a multi-year agreement with Anglo American to systematically take the question “What will we build?” and turn it into a rallying cry of “Let’s get it built!” 

What we did 

When you’re designing and 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 were bound to be months of testing and trials before we reached the finished product. First Mode stayed focused and energized in our pursuit, as every round of testing revealed new opportunities for fine-tuning and optimizing for an impeccable design result. 

Two of the strategies we implemented to tackle the task before us were robust experimentation 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 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 this large can’t (yet) be quickly changed, and recharging them takes a long time. Instead, we turned to hydrogen fuel cells, and began looking for a combination of batteries and fuel cells that would yield optimal performance. 

The next phase of measurement and testing was more concrete. We spent time in the mines, observing and operating the trucks themselves. We outfitted the truck with sensors and performed a 3D scan to measure how the truck would work at different temperatures, what routes it traversed, and how much power would be needed. The resulting data was used to test out a wide variety of options and configurations, ultimately yielding a design perfectly suited to the challenge 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 was even more testing, first at our facility in Seattle, and then on-site in South Africa. Every opportunity to improve and tweak the design was 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 

The retrofitted 930E-4 is now the largest hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle in the world. Anglo American’s plan is to retrofit 40 more trucks at Mogalakwena starting around 2024, with all fuel generated by a local solar plant, and eventually roll out the system to the rest of the approximately 400 haul trucks in their global fleet. In conjunction with the other aspects of the FutureSmart Mining™ program, these changes aim to reduce Anglo American’s greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030 and to carbon neutrality by 2040.

Successful deployment of FCEV haul trucks could have widespread ramifications across the heavy machinery industry. Mining represents some of the harshest conditions and therefore most difficult applications of FCEV technologies. Marine and rail operations, for example, have much looser thermal and space constraints than mining operations. There are many other opportunities for FCEVs to provide a sustainable alternative to diesel, and First Mode is honored to be at the forefront of this effort.