The mining industry has a reputation for environmental disruption. Diesel-powered vehicles and words like “fracking” create the image of an industry unable to cut emissions. But is this perspective warranted? Contrary to popular belief, many mining companies are taking active steps in cutting their CO2 output and embracing sustainable, modern solutions. So let’s take a look at some of the ways the industry utilizes the latest developments in renewable energy.
The majority of heavy machinery around the world does run on engines designed for diesel. But is a diesel-powered drivetrain incompatible with sustainable policies? Advancements in fuel synthesization now allow companies to use renewable diesel. This energy source is manufactured from organic biomasses and readily available materials such as vegetable oil. Rio Tinto’s U.S. Borax mine in California is testing the use of exclusively renewable diesel in its hauling equipment. The sustainable fuel works functionally identically to regular diesel but produces less emission without forcing the company to change its equipment. Locations with biodiesel terminals already benefit from lower fuel costs. As these terminals become more common, more and more operations will embrace this technology.
Biofuels is a catch-all term for any fuel produced from a sustainable, biological source. These include vegetable oils and animal fat, while some variants even utilize used oils. The aforementioned renewable diesel is an example of a biofuel, but there are many others. Regardless of the type of biofuel a mine operates with, they bring a plethora of benefits. Firstly, biofuels produce fewer carbon emissions across the board, compared to traditional diesel. They tend to have a higher lubricity, with benefits for a mine’s operational costs. The reduction of CO2 emissions helps more than just the environment, it helps the minors. Homestake’s Mines in South Dakota found that using biofuels reduced their DPM by nearly 75%. And it’s not just air quality that improves with biofuels, these compounds are also less flammable, bringing numerous safety benefits.
Solar energy is not a recent invention, but advancements in battery technology have allowed mining companies to utilize sustainable energy for their operations. Solar energy in particular is popular in warmer climates, for example, Gudai-Darri mine in Australia produces 65% of its energy with solar panels. This has offset the mine’s CO2 emissions by 90,000tpa. Other mine-specific developments in this field include the microgrid. The DeGrussa Copper Mine in Western Australia uses microgrids to avoid energy disruptions, as microgrids function independently of main grids. Case studies show that even a microgrid can reduce energy costs by 50% when compared to diesel generators. Since they lack moving parts, solar panels have negligible maintenance costs, making them ideal for operational efficiency.
Similar to solar power, wind energy is already in use all over the world. Some mines have harnessed the winds for nearly a decade, like the Diavik Diamond Mine, which has been using wind power in lieu of diesel since 2012. The Diavik mine is located near the Arctic circle and functions as a clear case study of the effectiveness of sustainable energy even in harsh, distant locations. Diavik is not a unicorn, Glencore’s Raglan mine in Canada also utilizes wind energy in conjunction with a flywheel to store power for calmer days. This helps the operation cut emissions by 12,000 tonnes of CO2 that would otherwise be released from a diesel-operated mine. 2700 road vehicles produce roughly as much carbon as the Raglan mines saves through wind power.
While sustainable energy can be intermittent, limiting its effectiveness for the energy-intensive mining industry, there is an alternative without such issues. Hydrogen boasts a high energy density, ease of refueling, and most importantly, a constant supply of fuel for machines and tools. Hydrogen can be produced using sustainable energy, while simultaneously allowing the operation to store it more efficiently. While still in its infancy, a number of mines around the world are developing systems to use hydrogen fuel to power their operations. Mining3, ENGIE, Ballard, and Hexagon Purus are partnering to create hydrogen-powered systems for their mines in Chile. If the project is successful, their entire fleet should run on hydrogen by 2025.
The mining and metals industry is constantly developing new technologies to become more efficient and sustainable. The five examples given in this article are just a select few case studies. As the industry fully transitions away from fossil fuels, we will see more and more stories of mining operations operating fully renewable-energy fleets.
There are many paths to a greener future in sustainable mining. Companies around the globe are actively seeking means and methods to limit their carbon footprint. Join key decision makers at the Mining 4.0: Roadmap for the future summit, November 8-9th in sunny Barcelona. Industry leaders will gather to discuss and exchange the best practices for implementing green fuel and sustainable infrastructure.