Mining field-trials pave way for fuel cell power.
Successful field trials conducted last year at Placer Dome's Campbell mine in Red Lake, using a fuel-cell powered locomotive, outperformed a conventional battery-powered locomotive "at every opportunity," says a federal researcher overseeing an international effort to evaluate the technology's productivity and efficiency in mining.
Dr. Marc Betournay, a senior scientist with CANMET, the research arm of Natural Resources Canada, says the fuel-cell-powered locomotive proved "very dependable and productive" during underground trials at the mine in October 2002.
During the testing, the vehicle ran five, eight-hour shifts at the mine site, pulling drags of six and seven fully-loaded ore cars compared to just five cars from a conventional battery-powered locomotive.
CANMET is part of an international effort headed by the U.S Fuel-cell Propulsion Institute, which is participating in a collaborative research project to investigate new fuel-cell technology in the mining industry.
Various research and academic institutions, mining equipment manufacturers and mining companies are involved. Among those are Placer Dome Inc. and R. A. Warren Equipment of North Bay, who provided the four-tonne underground locomotive used as a prototype to test the fuel cell.
Compared to the battery vehicle, the locomotive in the Red Lake test provided equal acceleration, twice the power, much shorter recharge time, and is likely capable of operating for two labour shifts before re-fuelling. The battery-powered locomotive barely lasted one shift.
Project designers are confident a tele-operated fuel-cell vehicle can eventually run non-stop for 24 to 36 hours without re-fuelling.
That is positive news for the global mining industry faced with ongoing high capital production costs and always looking for ways to address health and safety deficiencies with conventionally-powered equipment.
He estimates by 2005, with the project's proof-of-concept phase complete, all the necessary regulatory and risk issues will be addressed, as well as the re-fuelling and performance aspects for the mining industry to consider changing over to fuel-cell technology.
"Personally, I'm looking at 2007 for equipment manufacturers to come out with a fuel-cell version, and 2008 for the mining industry to start switching over to fuel cells."
Fuel cells produce electricity through an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The electricity is used to power an electric motor.
Though electric batteries have to be periodically recharged, fuel cells run as long as they have a supply of hydrogen, which can be carried on board the vehicle. The only emissions produced are heat and pure water.
From a health and safety perspective, Betournay says fuel cells offer the "total solution" in eliminating diesel particulate underground, and provide "tremendous savings" in mine ventilation.
As part of their research, the project partners conducted an in-depth cost-benefit analysis, which revealed there are ventilation savings of anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent in shallow mines, including reduction in electricity consumption of between $300,000, and more than $1 million depending on the size of the mine.
Union officials harboured some concerns about using hydrogen underground, but there were zero occurrences with hydrogen leaks, says Betournay, and the hydrogen can be produced on surface and delivered underground via pipeline, much like diesel fuel.
Betournay is contemplating a fully-automated fuel-cell powered locomotive project in the near future similar to tele-remote loaders operated by Inco in Sudbury.
While the fuel cell locomotive has been shipped to CANMET's experimental mine in Val d'Or, Que. for long-term testing, plans are underway to expand the fuel cell program to include other underground mining equipment. The same consortium that built the locomotive is now modifying a Caterpillar loader R1300 series, removing the diesel plant and replacing it with a hydrogen fuel cell power plant.
With the final design made, the project partners are beginning to install the power plant aboard the vehicle at the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Ill. A metal hydride storage system is being provided by HERA Hydrogen Storage Systems of Montreal, and the fuel cells will be arriving from Nuvera Europe of Italy.
Betournay says the large loader will be put through field trials in Illinois in the fall of 2004 before being shipped to Nevada to be tested underground at mines operated by Newmont and Placer Dome. He is hopeful the vehicle will be shipped north for more underground testing at Inco's South mine in Sudbury by the spring of 2005.
Betournay has also held preliminary discussions with FedNor about developing a college training program in Northern Ontario for the maintenance and trouble-shooting of fuel cell power plants.
With Sudbury's existing collection of mining supply companies centred around the manufacture and modification of diesel-powered mining equipment, he believes the city would be the ideal place to set up an education component.
He says there are also further commercialization developments on the horizon with two other mining vehicles. CANMET and its development consortium are moving into the prototype phase within the next year in experimenting with fuel cell technology aboard a light duty utility mine run-about vehicle, one which Betournay describes as a "civil engineering tunnelling vehicle."
By IAN ROSS
Northern Ontario Business