Freeport’s Bagdad bridge to the future

Richard Roberts

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Freeport McMoRan's Jason Bowsher speaks at The Electric Mine 2024 in Perth, Western Australia
‘We’ve spent decades refining the diesel model but obviously we’ve got to turn that page’

Copper major Freeport McMoRan sees mine automation as a key lever in a race to improve the economics of non-diesel equipment and is prepared to invest in what is effectively a full-blown live test to “create a blueprint” for the future.

“Now’s the time to be developing your blueprint, and saying, how can autonomous benefit my operation,” the company’s sustainable mining manager, Jason Bowsher, said at The Electric Mine 2024 in Perth, Western Australia.

“We’re very excited to learn about autonomous; we’re excited about the opportunity to be able to iterate and refine it.

“This is going to become the blueprint to help us understand the true value … of future zero emission operations.”

Freeport last year embarked on a three-year project to convert more than 30 218-tonne-payload trucks at its Bagdad copper mine in Arizona to autonomy, which would make the site the first in the US with a fully autonomous haulage system.

The company said it aimed to improve fleet operating efficiency and would have an opportunity to train its workforce to operate and service the “new technology”.

Management also described autonomous haul trucks as an “important step towards electrification”.

“Rather than waiting for electrification technology to be developed and attempting to embrace it all at once, by transitioning Bagdad now, we believe we will be able to learn more about autonomous technology and how to leverage that technology before battery-operated haul trucks are introduced,” they said at the time.

Bowsher said in Perth mine decarbonisation was “highly disruptive” for the industry.

“Diesel has been a wonderful thing,” he said.

“The only real bad thing about diesel is the carbon. Everything else, diesel checks all the boxes.

“We’ve spent decades refining the diesel model but obviously we’ve got to turn that page.

“We’ve all heard this week … the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are doing a great job. We’re actually not concerned about the [future commercial availability of the] truck itself. It’s clear that you can get a battery electric truck. There is a hydrogen truck. There is a hybrid truck.

“But the biggest thing is how do you make that solution viable?

“Because based on our modelling today, the current model suggests that this is not a profitable, desirable route for us to pursue.

“You don’t ever make money on this based on what we have today.

“Everybody’s in the business to make money. You have to be profitable. If you’re not profitable, you’re not funding this. You’re not funding future growth or even sustaining your business.

“Forget about future electrification, haulage costs continue to go up in the current state.

“On a relative basis, what it costs me to move a tonne of material today is going to cost me more in the future.

“As the pits get deeper your haulage routes get longer [and] it requires more energy. And so realistically if you take a 50-truck fleet today and you fast forward into the future that same amount of material might take me actually 70-plus trucks.

“Imagine going out and buying 70 battery electric trucks, assuming those trucks are operating at parity.

“This is partly what we’re trying to solve.

“The more you keep those trucks in motion, the more productive they are. That’s what we’re trying to do.

“That’s why you see all these technologies: fast static charging, regenerative [powering], dynamic charging … Whatever it takes to keep that truck in motion and doing work.”

Bowsher said it was vital miners worked on and addressed long-standing operating efficiency issues to ensure they were using energy – any energy – as efficiently as possible.

The demonstrated operating consistency of autonomous mining machines over about a decade – though still a relatively small sample with about 2000 of an estimated 54,000 surface mine trucks automated – suggested the technology had a bigger role to play in a less predictable future.

“We oftentimes talk about working smarter, not harder. It’s really about being efficient,” he said.

“We have some mine sites that have over 140 trucks operating at one time. Sometimes we have 30 haul trucks going up a single ramp. If those 30 haul trucks need some sort of dynamic transfer and energy to recharge, think about how much energy is going into that strip of haul road to try to give energy to 30 haul trucks at one time.

“You’re trying to manage that energy and the best thing you can do to control some of that right is how consistent you are.

“Why would I want to buy more energy than I need?

“I definitely want to make sure I don’t fall short and not have enough energy.

“What’s really nice about autonomous is it works towards reducing the amount of decision making of an operator. You’re reducing that human error.

“When you think about the future state of electrification the margin for error is very, very small.

“We’re very focused on data analytics. We see an opportunity to collect more information.

“Information is key.

“There is an opportunity to go to the next level when it comes to autonomous and I think one of the benefits of decarbonisation is it’s actually going to help make that transition to the next level.

“The key is when you think about electrification, and this pursuit of zero emissions, it won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to take time.

“And so certainly for us, we’re trying to be very prudent, and very practical, and understanding that we’re eventually going to get to net zero.

“But we’re really focusing on what’s in front of us now and how do we make that bridge.”


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