Photo by Sam Daniel
First Mode builds the barely possible, and perhaps the most barely-possible thing we’ve built to date is a hydrogen fuel cell and battery powerplant the size of a small school bus, developed to power the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle, for global mining giant Anglo American. Converting this three-story ultra-class haul truck from burning diesel to running on green hydrogen will keep the equivalent of 700 cars’ worth of carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere annually — and this proof-of-concept truck is only the first of hundreds that Anglo American hopes to apply the technology to in support of its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040.
In advance of the haul truck’s expected launch by Anglo American, we took a look back through more than three years of history to share project milestones, from its first piece of coverage through its newest nomination as an Innovation of the Year capable of changing the way we live.
Mining Weekly: Anglo hopes to run truck on hydrogen in 12 months (April 3, 2019)
In 2018, Anglo American contracted with First Mode to perform a four-week study on the viability of batteries and hydrogen as potential power sources for a zero-emission mining haul truck.
Fast Company: This hydrogen-powered truck could help lower the footprint of the mining industry (December 17, 2019)
By the end of 2019, First Mode’s name had reached the news as Anglo American’s integration partner in designing and developing the hydrogen fuel cell and battery powerplant that would one day turn a diesel-guzzling Komatsu 930E-4 into the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.
“Mining companies are responsible for a huge chunk of our carbon emissions,” wrote Kristin Toussaint, who reported on the story for Fast Company. “Diesel-powered dump trucks are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in surface mining operations. But everything from our phones to our attempt to transition to renewables relies on mining a lot of materials. One mining company is trying to balance those contradictions by reducing its truck-related carbon output with the world’s first hydrogen-powered mining truck. Seattle-based engineering firm First Mode will develop the technology for Anglo American.”
Engineering & Mining Journal: Futuristic Solutions Threaten Status Quo (September 2020)
In a feature for the September 2020 issue of Engineering & Mining Journal, under the heading Futuristic Solutions Threaten Status Quo, Jesse Morton delved deeper into the potential impact of the new technology on the mining industry, noting that “if the prototype proves viable, it could be a game-changer and put Anglo American in the catbird seat in the push to decarbonize the mining industry.”
International Mining: Anglo says seven mines set for hydrogen mining truck fleets by 2030; rollout of 40 at Mogalakwena starts 2024 (October 30, 2020)
By October, Anglo American was already looking ahead from First Mode’s design and development of a proof-of-concept truck at Mogalakwena to the next seven mine sites around the world where the technology could be deployed.
Anglo American CEO Mark Cutifani told International Mining’s Paul Moore that the use of green hydrogen “could displace 650,000 t of CO2 emissions each year … the equivalent of removing 150,000 cars from the road.”
GeekWire: First Mode Building Hydrogen Fuel Cell for One of the Biggest Zero-emission Vehicles on Earth (February 22, 2021)
By 2021, the vehicle that First Mode’s work would create was being recognized as one of the largest zero-emission vehicles on Earth.
“Seattle engineering company First Mode is building a hydrogen fuel cell generator capable of lighting up Lumen Field,” wrote GeekWire’s Bryan Corliss. “But the technology is destined for an environment far from the bright lights of a football stadium. … It’s part of a three-year, $13.5 million deal First Mode signed with global mining giant Anglo American in 2019, and part of a new direction for a company that got its start working on spacecraft and Mars rovers.”
The Seattle Times: Seattle rocket scientists turn attention to mining, nearing completion of zero-emission engine for huge, industrial dump truck (September 6, 2021)
“A Seattle engineering company is building one of the world’s first zero-emission engines for a massive mining truck in a Sodo warehouse packed with ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia and machines named after ‘Saturday Night Live’ characters,” wrote Akash Pasricha, a business reporter for the Seattle Times.
“The company, called First Mode, is led by a former NASA rocket scientist. It will soon ship the 45,000-pound engine to a South African platinum mine, where it will install the engine into a bungalow home-sized dump truck.
“‘Success for us and for our customer is to show everybody that you can throw this into an active operation … and make it work,’ said First Mode CEO Chris Voorhees.”
E&E News: The hard road to electrifying a mighty truck (October 8, 2021)
E&E News’s in-depth profile of the world’s first zero-emission ultra-class haul truck delved even deeper into the technical details of the project.
“These ‘ultra class’ vehicles, as they’re known, are the Clydesdales of open-pit mines, hauling almost 300 tons of rock from the dusty depths of the pit to the lip for crushing and processing. The diesel-electric hybrid can burn almost 800 gallons of diesel a day,” wrote David Ferris in the profile. “But this particular truck, after its transplant, will never again burn diesel. Its engine will be removed and swapped out for this new device coming from Seattle — a fuel-cell power plant that runs on hydrogen.”
Anglo American: Our hydrogen truck: The mission (November 26, 2021)
Near the end of the year, Anglo American released the first in an award-winning series of videos created by global independent creative agency Across the Pond.
“When looking at our mine sites globally, we realized that the best place to start was the diesel that we consume in our large mining trucks,” said Julian Soles, Head of Technology Development, Mining & Sustainability at Anglo American. “They consume between two and a half to three thousand liters of diesel per day … By converting these diesel trucks to run on hydrogen we’ll be eliminating up to 80 percent of the emissions associated with diesel on each mine site.”
“Converting a 300 tonne haul truck to run on hydrogen fuel is not the low-hanging fruit of hydrogen vehicle conversions,” added First Mode’s Voorhees.
BBC: Miners experiment with hydrogen to power giant trucks (December 21, 2021)
By year’s end, even the BBC got wind of the news of First Mode’s work with Anglo American and its potential impact on global carbon emissions.
“Reducing the carbon footprint of the mining industry is a formidable task,” wrote BBC reporter Jesse Preyser from Johannesburg. “The construction sector, which includes mining, accounted for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2017, according to Davide Sabbadin, senior policy officer for climate and circular economy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). He says the sector will need to reduce its energy consumption by a third if it hopes to be compatible with the Paris Agreement.”
Anglo American: Our hydrogen truck: The proof of concept (January 4, 2022)
In early 2022, the second in Anglo American’s video series by Across the Pond was released. “The technical challenges are enormous,” explained Clara Sekowski, Director of Modeling & Simulation at First Mode. “It’s not an iteration on an existing design. This is a completely new solution to a problem.”
GeekWire: Innovation of the Year: 5 technology breakthroughs named finalists in GeekWire Awards (March 31, 2022)
As First Mode engineers in South Africa complete a thorough testing campaign of the integrated powerplant to prepare for its debut at Mogalakwena, their incredible feat of clean tech engineering was nominated for the 13th GeekWire Awards’ “Innovation of the Year,” presented annually to a “breakthrough [that] could change the way we live.”
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