Machinery innovation aims to enhance underground environment

Epiroc's second generation of battery electric machinery.

International equipment manufacturers and Australian companies alike are showing their commitment to changing the underground mining environment.

Epiroc and Safescape both used the Austmine 2019 Conference in Brisbane during May to unveil details of their plans to innovate the underground with battery electric technology.

Battery electric machinery is set to provide numerous benefits to underground mining in the coming years, such as improved safety, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, diesel fuel consumption and power use.

For Epiroc, the technology continues to become further entrenched in the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEMs) future with the development of its Batteries-as-a-service business model.

The new division of the company will be another step towards its ambition to lead mining towards a sustainable future with zero emission machines.

Epiroc has rapidly moved in this direction in recent years, making a key move in 2016 by releasing its first generation battery electric machinery, which focused on smaller models of the company’s underground trucks, loaders and drills.

In 2017, the Swedish company started development of a battery platform involving scalable, modular architecture that could be used across its product range, from the smallest to largest machines.

The OEM then unveiled its second generation battery electric equipment late last year, including a number of larger machines that will appeal to a broader market, particularly in Australia.

To support this expansion, Epiroc realised it needed to change the way it does business to accelerate the transformation.

As Epiroc introduced its new battery system, the company also started to plot the Batteries-as-a-service business model to take its development breakthroughs further.

Epiroc is shaping the business model to remove the obstacles that come with a transition to the technology, providing an ‘instant technology leap’ to battery electric machinery.

Batteries-as-a-service will move the upfront costs of batteries from capital expenditure to operational expenditure, with the responsibility of this function assumed by the OEM.

Epiroc senior executive vice president, mining and infrastructure, Helena Hedblom believes Batteries-as-a-service will be a natural choice for many customers.

“The bigger mining houses often have the capacity to buy it all, but for the smaller and mid-sized customers the capital expenditure (of battery electric machinery) could still be resistance,” Hedblom says.

“We believed if we could find a way to turn the batteries into OPEX we would have customers wanting to try this, especially as we expect the technology to improve every year.

“With this model we can put the new technology in as it is developed, which is not the case if we just sell the batteries. By that we can have a seamless improvement of technology into the fleet that is out there.”

Safescape, meanwhile, is trialling a light EV in an Australian gold mine in a collaborative partnership with 3ME Technology and METS Ignited.

The Bortana EV, based on the Agrale Marruá heavy-duty utility vehicle from Brazil, has been designed to offer a significant increase in sustainability and durability compared with existing options for underground mining.

It has been developed to provide several key benefits over diesel-powered vehicles. The Bortana EV provides minimal heat, minimal noise and no exposure to diesel particulate matter (DPM) for workers within confined spaces.

A prototype of the EV will go into the gold mine on a three-month trial before further exposure to other mining companies and contractors.

Safescape managing director Steve Durkin says the vehicle has a simple design, but it is also incredibly strong and robust.

“The vehicle we are using has been designed from the ground up for a military platform in Brazil. The whole body is galvanised,” Durkin says.

“So we have a vehicle that is strong enough for the environment, strong enough for the loads that we are carrying, and resists corrosion for an extended period of time.”

Safescape displayed the vehicle at the Austmine Conference, before launching it at the Mt Cotton Training Centre in Brisbane following the event.

3ME Technology chief executive Justin Bain says a vehicle of this nature is sorely needed in the Australian mining landscape.

“Vehicles used in underground Australian mining operations have faced issues of corrosion, durability and emissions for a long time – there is a sore need for a better solution,” Bain says.

“The Bortana EV was developed for the harsh environments of Australian mine sites and we’re really excited to see this vehicle in action. We have focused on achieving the highest levels of safety and compliance whilst delivering superior performance and efficiency. ”

Bortana EVs are future proofed, according to the developers. They are also equipped for integration with current and future artificial intelligence development.

The project is partly funded by METS Ignited, which provided $500,000 for the initiative under its collaborative project funds in 2018.

Epiroc’s development of its battery electric range, along with the Bortana EV trial, demonstrates there is a growing appetite for these innovations in Australia.

Shaiful Ali, Epiroc business line manager, says Australian mining companies are already showing interest in the prospect of a Batteries-as-a-service model.

The interest comes around six months after Epiroc released its second generation battery electric equipment, which the company is confident will be attractive to Australian mine sites.

Epiroc anticipates that Australian underground miners will increasingly pursue battery electric opportunities as the technology improves from an economic perspective.

“That’s mainly because in Australia there are not a lot of greenfield mine sites – a lot of the mines in Australia are going deeper,” Ali says.

“Obviously as you go deeper it gets hotter and it’s a driver for certain mining companies to sustain the mine life. The drivers for batteries are also obviously the cost savings involved with ventilation and the safety aspects they provide.”

The OEM expects an Australian mine to receive a machine from its second generation battery electric fleet by the end of the year.

This article also appears in the July–September edition of Safe to Work.