The mining industry contributes 2-3 percent of global CO2 emissions. However, with industry expectations, pressure from stakeholders, and international standards related to sustainable practices, companies can’t ignore their important role in the fight against climate change.
This was prevalent in our Innovation Forecast, where improving environmental footprint was both a benefit and driver to adopting and deploying technology. It's no surprise that there has been a movement towards alternative fuel sources in mining equipment in recent years, given roughly 40-50 percent of CO2 emissions at operations come from diesel used in mobile equipment. We’ve seen companies embracing battery-electric technology, trialling hydrogen fuel cell technology and more.
No matter the type of alternative fuel, the objectives are similar – the need for decarbonisation. This would make mining more sustainable, reduce or eliminate emissions and improve workers' health and safety.
However, investing in these technologies or retrofitting an entire fleet is not always feasible for many operations.
We spoke to Max Lytle, CCO and Tom Michaelson-Yeates, Mining Sector Director at FuelActive - manufacturers of the innovative fuel pickup unit – and discussed how companies with diesel equipment can embrace technology to improve their efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint.
Q: What do you think has driven the trend towards fuel reduction and alternative fuel source mining equipment?
Max: There are a couple of factors, the first one being cost. Fuel cost for any mining company, irrespective of where they operate, is a significant proportion of their operating expense. Figures like 50% of a company's operating budget will be spent on fuel. That's obviously a significant factor. Additionally, increasing global prices create a relatively short-term effect, but the long-term trends are deep-rooted.
Secondly, there is a genuine appetite for decarbonisation and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Therefore, if you reduce your fuel consumption, you reduce your costs and the emissions output from that mine.
Those are two critical factors.
One final thing is the availability of technology, which allows people to focus on this. There is a large amount of investment across multiple businesses. We're a small part of that, but people investing in technology that reduces fuel makes a reduction in fuel consumption and in emissions possible.
So, appetite, punitive cost, and available technology enable this trend.
Companies working more collaboratively is the only way we will succeed in hitting these goals of 2050
Q: What role does technology play in the industry's decarbonisation efforts, and how do you think this will impact the industry going forward?
Tom: To achieve net zero in the mining industry, everyone in the sector has a role to play; this includes technology companies, mining organisations, oil majors, and other suppliers.
Mining operations are currently massive users of fossil fuels. To change that and to achieve net zero targets, a real collaborative effort is needed. We’ve seen a change in the sense that you're getting large truck OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] partnering with small battery technology companies. You're getting fuel majors setting up consortiums, which has a collection of small and large companies with a goal to achieve net zero in mining.
While technology is vital, we must change how we've done things in the industry for the last hundred years, the importance of collaboration enables meaningful change to occur. Unlike before, where you would get big mining companies and big OEMs making changes, what you're going to see now is much smaller technology companies coming in, making shift changes, and partnering with these mines.
That will be the change over the next ten years. Companies working more collaboratively is the only way we will succeed in hitting these goals of 2050.
Q: What industry challenge does FuelActive technology address and how?
Max: Fundamentally, FuelActive resolves issues associated with diesel contamination. The critical issue here is that diesel contamination historically has had a significant impact on the productivity levels in a mine. You get several fuel-related breakdowns that increase your maintenance costs and encapsulate a productivity issue within the mine.
What we have seen from multiple pilots, across different sectors is that FuelActive can also reduce fuel consumption, with an associated CO2 saving. It is generally accepted that clean fuel optimises the thermal efficiency of the engine, protecting increasingly sensitive injectors. The longer you can protect these vital components, the better the efficiency of the engine.
In any diesel tank, there are contaminants, most notably water. But there are also small metal particles, dust and debris that can come from the environment, old infrastructure or during fuel rehandling. Water is predominantly generated by condensation formed inside the tank or rainwater ingress in underground storage. It’s also worth noting that all biodiesel is hygroscopic, so it carries water. All those contaminants exist within a fuel tank and almost exclusively settle at the bottom of the tank where a standard fuel pickup unit resides.
FuelActive is a floating pickup where the pickup point is at the top of the fuel level. That is where the cleanest fuel is available. Therefore, if you use FuelActive, you draw the cleanest possible fuel in your fuel tank to your engine.
Q: How's this technology different to any other technologies you’ve seen on the market?
Tom: FuelActive is a fit-and-forget technology – this is key.
Other fuel-saving or fuel-cleaning technologies range from fuel polishing or fuel filtration. All of which are consumable items. With these technologies, there is an ongoing cost - operators must regularly replace fuel filters or put more polisher in the fuel.
Once you install FuelActive, it's there for the life of that piece of equipment, which is the fundamental change in how FuelActive delivers. Once installation is complete, FuelActive provides value year after year without it having to be changed.
Q: Is there a regional difference in the types of companies that adopt these technologies?
Max: Initially, we focused on specific regions, notably Africa and South America. In some ways, the issues associated with contamination can be more challenging in those markets. Areas such as Australasia and North America might be considered to have better fuel handling processes or fuel management systems in place.
In the locations we've selected, there is a large appetite for FuelActive - diesel contamination is a challenge.
But in reality, the areas that we will target very soon (Australia, Canada, and America) are using very sophisticated engines that are extremely susceptible to even minor amounts of contamination.
So even in the more sophisticated engines, like the StageV engine technology, the injectors need to be very, very well protected. So FuelActive has a place in all regions, we just happened to target Africa and South America first.
Q: Are you seeing a pattern in the types of companies investing in these technology solutions? For example, does the company size, and number of mines have an impact?
Tom: Not specifically, but larger companies have bigger budgets to try and test new technologies, from decarbonisation to financial benefit technologies. However, with high fuel costs, even smaller companies are forced to look for innovative solutions.
As a result, the size of the mines we work with differs. We work with mining majors with some of the largest operations on the planet to smaller and mid-size mines, and they all are seeing the benefits. It's just scaled up when you look at larger companies.
From a commodity perspective, we work with a real variety of commodities, from base metals and precious metals to coal.
We are seeing across the industry - not just from a FuelActive perspective, but from a technology perspective - mid to large mining companies across the globe creating incredible pledges for decarbonisation and are therefore open to looking at new technologies.
So, it's not focused on a regional or a commodity basis so to speak.
Max: To expand on Tom's point, we can present to a decarbonisation team within a large multinational company, and they will determine where to conduct the pilot.
In those instances, the company selects the region they wish to target first but with full acceptance that they may well expand the technology elsewhere. It's just they have an immediate need or a more significant need in specific locations.
It's very difficult for anyone to pretend that global warming isn't happening
Q: Are enough organisations understanding and taking emissions reduction as seriously as they should?
Max: Yes, I think they are. There is a genuine appetite across the mining sector to reduce emissions. Maybe there is a generational thing here and more awareness by which more people understand the impact of global warming and the benefits of reducing emissions. Undoubtedly, everyone understands the generational impact [for our children] and sees the consequences it will have.
So, I think there is a fundamental shift to change things because there's more information available. It's very difficult for anyone to pretend that global warming isn't happening. Therefore, companies have a responsibility to change it.
There is naturally a lot of transparency as well. Companies understand from a business perspective that they need to tackle these things. So even if it isn't an emotional response, I think there is a financial and business need. I would say there is a real desire.
What I've noticed, very interestingly, is that companies are resourcing their decarbonisation teams very well. They're professionally run, well-financed, and given the authority to make dynamic business decisions quickly, which helps drive change throughout the business. And that’s positive.
Q: How is mining helping to save the planet?
Tom: Firstly, mining is imperative in the fight against climate change. As the world tries to achieve net zero, the importance of the metals and mining industry will only increase.
If you look at metals such as copper and cobalt, as an example, they're absolutely vital in everything we want to produce to go down the net zero route. So from the number of electric cars we want to produce to wind or solar farms, these all require copper, cobalt, and many other metals. When you compare current production levels to what is needed to meet these demands all we find is that we need to increase the mining of clean metals and metals required to achieve net zero.
What we'll see is a switch in what metals we mine. And you're already seeing this in mining companies, especially coal, where you've got coal companies making strategies to get out of coal and look into other metals or technologies.
The actual mining industry will do nothing but grow. Really on this planet, if you look at anything, you either mine it or grow it. So, everything from the demand for steel or copper will increase.
Although, the processes we use to mine metals will change as we get more technology. We might also find mines are smaller but smarter and we won't have these large open pit mines, but mining will do nothing but increase.