ABB ready to integrate industry ingredients for mine electrification transition

It has been a busy 2021 for ABB on the mine electrification front. Agreements with OEMs Hitachi and Liebherr have been complemented by product or solution collaborations with MEDATech and Stäubli Electrical Connectors. This has arguably made recent mining customer pacts with Nordic Iron Ore, Talga Resources and Copper Mountain Mining, among others, easier to sign.

Yet, for all these external agreements, the most game-changing element of the year has come with the launch of its ABB Ability™ eMine portfolio.

Backed up by the incorporation of the ABB Ability eMine Trolley System, which can reportedly reduce diesel consumption by up to 90%, and plans to incorporate the ABB Ability eMine FastCharge solution in 2022, eMine seeks to provide integral design planning and thinking to maximise the value of electrification, helping to design the hauling process in the most optimised way with electrical solutions that match mine constraints and help meet production targets, according to the company.

eMine sees ABB extend its capabilities to the electrification of mining trucks and technologies for the full mining process, the company said in the announcement release. “In addition to haulage, the portfolio includes the electrification of ABB’s more traditional hoisting, grinding and material handling solutions for mining.”

Yet, the development of this solution and the partnerships the company has signed are not predicated on having the entire mine electrification offering within ABB’s hands, according to Mehrzad Ashnagaran, Global Product Line Manager, Electrification & Composite Plant.

“The market is telling us they cannot go alone, and these partnerships and the development of eMine are not about increasing our own scope. It is about providing the total, integrated solution to the industry,” he told IM last week.

Nic Beutler, Global Product Manager, Power System & Charging Solutions, added from the company’s booth at MINExpo 2021: “Miners want to have an agnostic solution that is not bound to one technical, proprietary offering. We want to make it as easy as possible to integrate these projects for the customers.”

And that is the role ABB will end up taking in the mine electrification landscape: the integrator.

With open-pit haulage electrification, specifically, the company can provide trolley assist infrastructure such as DC substations or an overhead catenary system; underground, it is renowned for e-drivetrains – including motors, drives and vehicle control units – as well as charging solutions.

It is now ready to integrate these individual components into a greater electrification solution from multiple vendors that the industry is open to and, more importantly, looking for.

Ashnagaran says: “We realised that, in the end, we need to work closely with the OEMs. The all-electric mine is not something that one company alone can offer, and the mining market is telling us they’re looking for a total solution – what we call grid-to-wheel.”

Such collaboration has not been seen in many technology developments in the industry, according to Ashnagaran.

“The problem is that miners historically tended to see the supplier relationship as a zero sum, rather than an opportunity that can potentially maximise value for both parties,” he says.

“If we look at the role of suppliers from an open perspective – as we have done in the past with the KTS (Key Technical Supplier – a business model alternative to engineering procurement and construction) model – strategic partners could help miners benefit from the innovation, cost reduction and a seamless and fully integrated solution.”

It’s easy to find evidence of this shifting industry mindset.

Take the Charge on Innovation Challenge, setup by BHP, Rio Tinto and Vale – and facilitated by Austmine – to develop concepts for large-scale haul truck electrification systems to help dramatically cut emissions from surface mine operations.

Historically, when has the industry last seen the three biggest mining companies collaborate to confront an industry-wide technology issue such as this?

The recent tailings management initiatives have been spearheaded by associations with mining company representation, as opposed to the miners themselves. The Charge On Innovation Challenge has been developed by miners, with 18 more of them joining ‘the big three’ prior to the most recent deadline.

ABB was announced as one of 21 vendors to progress to the next phase of the challenge recently, with the company submitting two workable solutions for faster charging of large surface electric mining trucks. These solutions leveraged its mine electrification, traction and battery system and charging infrastructure expertise.

The company narrowed down seven ideas submitted in the challenge’s initial stages to two proposals for the latter stages, according to Beutler.

“This does not mean the others will completely fall out, but the most promising ones have been filed for the second submission,” he says.

Asked whether the eMine FastCharge or Trolley System feature in these submissions, he replied: “The solutions we are handing in – just due to the power requirements for this challenging haul truck size – is part of our R&D portfolio. We don’t have it off-the-shelf, but we are heading towards making it ready by 2023 in line with the challenge’s timelines.”

By the end of the year, the concepts and companies advancing to the next stage of the challenge will be notified, according to Beutler.

Even if it is R&D that is included within the challenge submissions, ABB’s eMine portfolio is still relevant to this industry conversation.

“We are looking to bring OEM-agnostic solutions to the market, ones that are interoperable and create early solution standardisation,” Ashnagaran says.

“The market is still very much being ‘shaped’. What I would say is that every month we are thinking about new solutions, or finetuning our existing solutions in line with customer needs. We are trying to adapt our solutions to new, constantly-evolving requirements.”

The 600 kW fast charger the company plans to debut next year might represent one of the higher capacity solutions on the market when released – Adria Manufacture is planning to launch a 1 MW fast charger of its own around the same time – but it is likely to have a 40-60 t truck repowering niche, according to Beutler.

“We know that 600 kW is good start for the industry,” he says. “But we have plans to raise this substantially – from 1 MW and beyond.

“At the same time, it’s about introducing the concept to the market. We are putting forward a modular approach with a powerhouse and connector module that is independently movable and can be upgraded in these standardised component sizes. We want to try that, test it and get feedback for this electric solution.”

Built up-on open standards and designed based on OPPCharge – an initiative aiming at establishing a common interface for opportunity charging of electrical vehicles – the charger will leverage a connection device from Stäubli and be a “fully ruggedised solution”, he says.

Its initial charging application is likely to be for a battery-converted 40-t payload Western Star 4900 XD tractor that MEDATech provided Teck Resources – which IM revealed earlier this year – but Beutler says banks of these chargers could potentially be connected to provide a solution with higher capacity.

He sees these type of prototype projects as part of providing and defining industry standard solutions for the evolving electrification market, which, according to Ashnagaran, is in stark contrast to the trolley assist sector.

“The concept of the trolley was known in 1984 – most of the components and elements are sorted,” he says.

“Battery charging, on the other hand, is still evolving with three different areas to consider: the rectifier/charging system seems to have been solved, there is a potential bottleneck with the lack of available connectors, and the implementation of the solution onto the haul truck still needs to be proven.”

This is why ABB is open to collaborating in this space, realising it is the only way to stay relevant and up to date with industry progress and requirements.

“We might not come to the market with the right solution from the off, but the concept we have provides the right foundations,” Ashnagaran says.

“If we manage to present, introduce and prove the eMine concept with all the ingredients we want to address – interoperability, early solution standardisation, optimisation, reduced costs, safety, profitability and sustainability – then it is a game changer for the sector.

“That, for us, is more important than providing a specific technical reference over our competitors.”