There's hydrogen in them thar hills

POWER equipment specialist Cummins believes hydrogen, particularly proton exchange membrane fuel cell technology will be a key step towards a zero-carbon mining future.
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Cummins already has hydrogen fuel cells fitted to locomotives in commuter use.

A price of US$3 per kilogram is what it will take to make hydrogen competitive with diesel technology. That is belief of a senior Cummins executive.

Cummins experts told the company's Virtual Mining Expo that miners were being challenged to reduce their emissions and move towards zero carbon, or at least net zero carbon, operations.

It seems hydrogen is emerging as the fuel of choice to replace diesel as the main motivating force in mining.

Cummins is already moving down the hydrogen path in rail. It has powered hydrogen fuel cell locomotives in Europe that have been in revenue service for several years. It provides the power and cooling system for those units.

There has been talk of Cummins bringing a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive to the mining industry.

Asked about this during its Virtual Mining Expo a Cummins spokesman would only say the company was looking for the next best deployment of its fuel cell solutions.

Indeed, it is looking at the creation of hydrogen, including hydrolysers for rail and mining applications.

With mining the challenge is the massive variability from one operation to the next. Some have access to grid power. Some do not. Some have access to gas pipelines, some are reliant on diesel for their power generation as well as to run equipment. Wind generation may be an option for some operations and not for others.

There is also a big change coming as economies move from oil and gas power towards renewable energy.

This will be a boon for mining as the demand for metals grows to fill this gap.

However, it also boosts the challenges miners face because the bulk of their energy sources on site usually come from oil or gas.

Cummins power systems business president Norbert Nusterer said the company had been pivoting towards the new energy source requirements.

However, he said it was continuing to invest in its "legacy" internal combustion engine technologies, with the focus on reducing their emissions.

"We're trying to squeeze another 5-10-15% out of them right here right now," Nusterer said.

"We think that need is still going to be there.

"At the same time we're also starting to ramp up significantly on the path to zero emissions.

"There is the fuel cell angle with hydrogen. We also have invested in natural gas products as a stepping stone in-between."

On the hydrogen front Cummins executive director Dr Cathy Choi believes proton exchange membrane fuel cell-powered hybrid vehicles is the best way forward.

"Our assessment shows PEM shows the best viability," she said.

"PEM fuel cells and trolley assist will let whole mines have access to green energy solutions."

Choi said onsite hydrogen production would have greenhouse gas reduction knock-on benefits.

"Electricity from renewable sources can be used to generate hydrogen," she said.

Choi said Cummins was working with original equipment manufacturers to put hydrogen to work in mining.

Cummins power systems engineering vice-president Gary Johansen said he saw a lot of opportunity in the market.

"We're going to see it before the end of the decade," he said.

"There will be a lot of tests and trials going on."

Johansen said the breadth of Cummins offering gave it a scale many other players did not have.

"We have power generation solutions," he said.

"We have a lot of hardware and software solutions. Pit to port solutions."

Nusterer said over the past 10 to 15 years the technology solutions everyone accepted had been fairly narrow and fairly consistent.

"That paradigm is shifting very quickly," he said.

Nusterer expects there will be a proliferation of equipment types in operation as miners move away from the diesel engines that have stood them in such good stead.

"We're in a unique position and have already moved into that space fairly deliberately so we can follow and lead at the same time," he said.

"If you are an early adopter and want to try fuel cells I think we'll be there with you.

"I think that will be attractive to the OEMs and the end users.

"We have the scale. We've already made the investments in the base technologies."

Nusterer said when it came to miners looking to generate their own hydrogen on site Cummins could help because it also made the electrolysers.

"We'll be in a lot more use cases in a mining ecosystem than we were 10 years ago," he said.

The move away from diesel to other technologies will likely be expensive though.

"A lot of the technologies we're talking about are not cheap today," Nusterer said.

"They are orders of magnitude more expensive.

"Because we go across industries we can help bring those costs down quickly.

"When we open up the technology use case we'll be able to help more."

Cummins global mining and aftermarket executive director Beau Lintereur said getting the cost of hydrogen on a par with diesel would be crucial to its acceptance.

"If we can get hydrogen below US$3 per kilogram it will be pretty competitive with conventional technology," he said.