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The power of hydrogen for mining

Hear how Dr Daniel Roberts - from Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platform at Australia-based CSIRO - believes that hydrogen could power many energy-hungry operations.

19 February 2021


contact-Joe Carr

Joe Carr

Mining Innovation Director, Axora

An English scientist, Henry Cavendish, discovered a flammable gas in 1766. Antoine Lavoisier called it 'hydrogen' (water-former in Greek) because it becomes water when burned in oxygen. Two centuries later, experts believe that green hydrogen made by splitting water with renewable energy could be a game-changer, especially for the energy-intensive mining sector.

The technology around electrolysis, fuel cells or even storage just wasn't ready to deploy cost-effectively at scale. This is starting to change.

Hydrogen in mining

Renewable or low-carbon hydrogen is a clean alternative and can lead to efficiency savings. "Mining operations use enormous amounts of diesel, which is a huge operational expense. For mining companies that operate in remote areas, diesel is the only source of power," says Dr Daniel Roberts, Leader, Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platform at Australia-based CSIRO. (CSIRO is the government science agency focussed on applied R&D). But hydrogen power has the potential to change all that. According to him, hydrogen could power many energy-hungry operations. How?

  • By powering enormous haul trucks with hydrogen fuel cells. These transport the ore and waste at a mine site.

  • By powering small to medium-sized vehicles usually used to transport staff and machines.

  • Mines need a vast amount of power. Green hydrogen could be a part of the energy mix, providing storage and generation solutions.

  • As a reductant in the manufacture of 'green steel' and other metals. As an alternative to coke or coal, green hydrogen could drastically reduce carbon emissions.

The mining industry is excited about hydrogen. Last year, Anglo American, BHP, and Fortescue formed the 'Green Hydrogen Consortium' to accelerate decarbonisation

Industry analysts believe that mining sites could become 'surplus producers' generating electricity even after the mine has closed, especially in remote areas off the grid.

The ‘efficiency’ advantage

A McKinsey report published a few years ago pointed out a startling decline in productivity. In just a decade, worldwide mining operations were 28 per cent less productive. A dual need to create value and reduce carbon emissions have led experts to look for efficiency solutions. Green hydrogen's time had probably not come because of high costs and the lack of technical know-how. "The technology around electrolysis, fuel cells or even storage just wasn't ready to deploy cost-effectively at scale. This is starting to change." Daniel says. As the infrastructure required to manufacture, store and distribute green hydrogen becomes more widespread, the cost will continue to reduce. The Hydrogen Council predicts that the cost of low-carbon and renewable hydrogen production will fall drastically by up to 60 per cent over the coming decade.

Support from policymakers and mining majors

The mining industry is excited about hydrogen. Last year, Anglo American, BHP, and Fortescue formed the 'Green Hydrogen Consortium' to accelerate decarbonisation. Many governments are investing in hydrogen too. From Germany to Japan, South Korea to China, every major industrialised country wants a piece of the pie (which keeps on growing!). Some examples of the mining sector betting big on hydrogen are:

  • Anglo American's hydrogen trucks: to develop the world's largest hydrogen-powered mine haul truck.

  • Glencore RAGLAN Mine: located in northern Quebec in Canada, this mine has run a micro-grid powered by arctic-rated wind turbines connected to a hydrogen energy, battery, and flywheel storage system.

  • Fortescue green ammonia plant: this project envisages constructing a 250MW green hydrogen plant at the Bell Bay Industrial Precinct with a green ammonia production capacity of 250,000 tonnes per year for domestic and international export. (This project is still at an early stage, the company is also planning to make green steel).

CSIRO and Fortescue are working together to commercialise the technology that enables pure hydrogen to be pulled out of ammonia (by cracking), thereby completing a global renewable hydrogen supply chain based on ammonia.

Dr Daniel Roberts is convinced that green hydrogen is the future. It could be used in fuel cells that power buses, trucks and even ships one day. "One crucial factor is – scale," he says.

"To make a lot of hydrogen from wind or PV, you need a lot of generation capability." The sector will need a suite of technologies to make hydrogen at scale. These are coming. Watch this space.

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in efficiency series. To view the report and further interviews and insights into efficiency solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here.

19 February 2021

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