The mine of the future is electric

Electrification is one of the biggest technology shifts in mining, along with digitalization and automation. “Today it’s a small part of our business, but in a couple of years electric equipment will be part of pretty much every contract,” says Henrik Ager, President of Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions.

First-generation electrified mining equipment basically consisted of a traditional loader where you took out the diesel engine and fuel tank and replaced them with a battery. Today the entire machine is built around batteries and electric motors instead of existing engines, making a much more efficient machine.

Electric equipment can load faster and drive faster up and down a ramp. In addition, electric equipment is smaller per capacity. A 50-ton capacity electric truck is the size of a 40-ton traditional truck.

“This means that for the same amount of output you can have smaller tunnels in an underground mine,” says Henrik Ager, President of Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions. “Smaller tunnels means you move less waste as you build the mine and you save costs on building or developing the mine.”

Health benefits

There are many other benefits with electrification in mining, such as reduced emissions, reduced heat and reduced noise, which is all beneficial for the operators’ health.

“It’s usually quite hot in underground mining,” Ager says. “There are dust and fumes. By using electric equipment underground we eliminate the emissions from the equipment and remove 87 percent of the heat generated by traditional diesel equipment.”

The trend within mining is to go deeper and deeper underground, which increases the requirements for ventilation and cooling. “The deeper you go, the hotter it gets,” he says. “If you use electric equipment, the need for ventilation and cooling is reduced and you can save quite a bit of money in the process.”

Many customers want to try and have decided to build all-electric mines

Looking at the total cost of ownership from buying and running traditional diesel equipment, electric and diesel are on par.

Ager explains: “Electric equipment requires higher capital expenditures but the operating costs, such as fuel and maintenance, are lower. Factor in the savings on ventilation and cooling, and you have a really strong business case.

“Today, electric mining equipment accounts for about 1 percent of the market,” he continues. “A small part indeed, but a large share of the contracts we are negotiating today do include electric equipment as a natural part. Many customers want to try and have decided to build all-electric mines, so this will become a larger part of what we do over time, and eventually completely replace it. Ten years from now maybe it’s all we do.”

Underground drills will probably be in the forefront, while loaders and trucks might take a bit longer since they use more energy.

We have delivered more than 600 units of electric equipment up until now

Even though there is a huge interest from the customers, there are some challenges to overcome. Customers have been using diesel equipment for a very long time and are used to maintaining and running it. Batteries and electric motors operate differently and are maintained in a different way, and they need to work in an environment that is hot and humid, which is not optimal for electric equipment.

“We’ve had all those years to prove our diesel equipment and make it reliable and robust,” Ager says. “Now we have to fast-track that with our electric equipment and make it equally robust and reliable.”

And what makes Sandvik a world leader in electrification in mining?
“We sold our first electric loader in the early 1980s, and we have delivered more than 600 units of electric equipment up until now,” Ager says. “In addition, we acquired the Artisan company in 2019, and they have developed the self-swapping battery technology. When a machine can swap a battery by itself you don’t need to build infrastructures such as cranes or put in fast charging, which puts an enormous burden on your electric infrastructure. You can just plug and play, more or less.”

Henrik Ager has a clear view of the mine of the future:
“My vision is for it to be automated, with equipment that is connected and intelligent. With that I mean that it makes its own choices on when to stop and where to go. It can identify another vehicle or a person and stop or turn around. And it’s 100 percent electric.”