Innovator sees green light for massive retrofit industry

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Snug fit: Clayton Franklin thinks BE mine trucks and Western Australia’s huge mining industry are made for each other
‘It’s not a race to be second. Do it now or you’re going to lose your competitive advantage’

At the world’s biggest mine electrification forum in Perth, Western Australia, recently, there was plenty of talk about what the future of mining could look like. But for Electric Mine Consortium founder Graeme Stanway, there is nothing like sitting in it.

“No amount of analysis and telling people about disadvantages of the current system will work until people actually see the future,” Stanway says.

“That’s what you get here. This is very tangible; very visceral.”

Stanway had just disembarked from the “Green Machine”, a battery-electric, circa-90-tonne-payload (Caterpillar 777) retrofit dump truck built by Electric Power Conversions Australia. EPCA founder and principal Clayton Franklin was previously lead engineer on Fortescue’s hydrogen-powered mine-truck project in WA. He thinks the state can be a global powerhouse in a market worth billions of dollars.

“The technology wasn’t here a few years ago, but it is here now,” he says.

“I’ve been in WA mining for 25 years. The state is ideal. It’s got the right labour. We’ve got the mines right next to us.

“We’ve got people here who want it to happen.

“It’s not about big trucks moving more dirt anymore. Electrification of mines is about energy usage.

“A small truck uses 212kWhr [or 50 litres of diesel per hour] and a big one 600kWhr (150l/hr] so … in terms of moving tonnes for energy usage it’s the same to use three small trucks.

“Less maintenance [versus] more drivers. The silver bullet is a 100-ton or 150t rigid dump truck that’s electric and driverless.”

The EMC was formed in 2021 to bring together a collaborative network of miners and suppliers to try to speed the industry’s momentous switch from diesel equipment to EVs. It has already initiated more than 40 equipment trials. Stanway wasn’t the only one struck by the EPCA truck’s relative quietness and acceleration. A small diesel-powered crane vehicle that started up during a demonstration completely drowned out the truck and any conversation among onlookers.

“I think once you hear this thing [and] you see the size of the motors compared with [the diesel engine block that was removed]; you look at the costs and at the numbers … People will tend to move more quickly.

“It’s great that [EPCA is] really taking the risk to do this. There needs to be more of it,” Stanway says.

EMC principal Michelle Keegan says: “It’s a smart risk around an industry that needs to change.

“We know this is the way forward.

“But I think even a couple of years ago, at the beginning of the Electric Mine Consortium, I jumped in the Bortana [utility] electric vehicle and I was convinced that electric vehicles are the way to go because they are quiet and you get that fast uptake [acceleration].

“You jump in this truck, and it’s the same.

“I really think that it does take that experience of being in the vehicle. You can learn a lot from [Clayton] and can get over the first hurdle. You get into the vehicle and I think you get across the next hurdle. And then the next one is going to site and running [the truck].”

Franklin self-funded the first EPCA battery truck in the belief that “we’ve got to get it out there, get it working, get it moving tonnes”.

“Our pipeline [for] this size truck is 470 trucks.

EPCA founder Clayton Franklin: ‘Electrification of mines is about energy usage’

“We want to be able to do 80 a year out of this facility. With this facility here we would just keep punching out electric trucks.

“We’ve got to go from the 100t to the 150t. We’ve also got to do a loader. We’ve got to a grader, a dozer, a drill rig. But haulage is the first step and if we can solve haulage then that’s the bulk of [mine scope one] emissions sorted. The 100-150t truck is pretty straightforward.

“The truck runs for eight hours or can run for 12 hours [off battery power and charging].

“It’s a similar capex cost to buying a new diesel. It’s lower maintenance [and] lower operating cost. You can have a solar farm [to power a fleet]. It’s zero emissions.

“There’s nothing that stops you from taking up the technology.

“It’s not a race to be second. Do it now or you’re going to lose your competitive advantage.”

Franklin says a major Australian bank is prepared to provide finance for EPCA trucks via an operating lease.

He has alliances with the owner of the Hazelmere workshop where he’s building EVs, 16-year-old EMJC Earthmoving and Plant Hire, Australian Stock Exchange-listed mine dump-truck tray maker Austin Engineering, local battery energy storage company UON, and automation start-up Far Energy.

Franklin thinks battery technology from Ireland’s Xerotech best suits his needs at this stage.

“For us collaboration is key,” he says.

“Rather than us try and make a charger, build our own battery pack and start with a truck from square one, we’ve teamed up with UON … and they are 100% behind us. Austin Engineering know more about trays than anyone else in the industry. Xerotech have got what I think is probably the best [battery formula] for offroad machines worldwide.

“Those partnerships have really helped us drive forward rapidly.

“We did build the truck quickly but we built it right as well and I am very happy with the design.

“If you look at what was [on display] at the Electric Mine conference, which is the worldwide conference to be at, there were six underground machines and we had the only surface mining equipment.

“We are a very small company that comes along and brings an electric truck to the Electric Mine conference and bigger players like Caterpillar bring diesel-electric trucks.”

Part of a small team that designed and built the EPCA truck, engineer Nicolas Vidal said: “The thing that stood out to me the most at the Electric Mine show was that nearly everyone that came to talk to us was, like, this must have taken you two or three years.

“No, we were driving it seven months from the [design stage].”

Franklin says perhaps 30% of the estimated 5500 surface mine trucks in Australia are in the 90-140-tonne-payload bracket, and more smaller vehicles could replace bigger trucks in future with higher levels of autonomy and a greater focus on energy management and optimisation.

The proportion of smaller trucks in most offshore markets is even higher.

At events such as The Electric Mine, a common refrain from miners, contractors and original equipment manufacturers has been that retrofitting and/or replacing the world’s diesel equipment fleet could take decades and that’s with new suppliers supplementing incumbent sources. The biggest OEMs will prioritise ultra-class fleet renewal, which they are still at least two years away from starting.

“The reality is that we can’t meet [mid-range diesel-emission reduction targets] without transitioning the entirety of our small fleet, which is 150t trucks or less, to at least a hybrid solution,” Shane Clark, then energy transition group manager at the world’s largest surface mining contractor, Thiess (now general manager corporate development at Capricorn Metals), said at The Electric Mine.

“We need our current diesel-electric fleet to all be converted to BEV by 2035 and we need a large portion of our excavator fleet to at least be hybrid.

“Most of the work has to be done by 2030.

“It becomes a very big problem as to how we transition,”

“The answer more and more is we just have to have options.

“We have to connect with early adopters to build out our capability to support that battery electric fleet of tomorrow.

“But more than anything, we just need to get started.

“If you’re a contractor or a [miner] trying to pick one winner out of hundreds of possible solutions going forward, you are thinking about the problem the wrong way.

“The energy cost inside the mine gate is the real problem.

“How do we enable a step change there?”

Franklin says the superior efficiency and cost profile of BEVs is a major part of the answer. Solar power, with some different thinking, is another.

“My view has always been that this energy source should be solar,” he says, “with [direct current, or DC] charging via a decentralised solar farm.

“By that I mean the truck should come to the farm and consume power directly at the source where it’s generated. We don’t want to transmit the power.

“The farm should be at the same bus voltage as the truck so you don’t have to worry about inverters.

“We want to dump that charge directly into the truck and charge the batteries when the truck pulls up.”

Franklin says a 100m-by-100m solar-panel area coupled with the UON battery storage (9MWhr) and 3.7MW charger is adequate for 10 or so 90-tonne battery trucks running 24/7.

“And if you think about it there’s an energy source that’s going to last for the next 25 years,” he says.

“You’re not moving diesel up and down from Kwinana [south of Perth].

“We ship in diesel from Singapore, put it in tanks, and then we move it up and down to the Pilbara from Kwinana because we don’t have [a local] refinery anymore.

“The state has got a week’s supply of diesel sitting in Kwinana.

“Why would you want to have that dependency?”

 

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