LDO Group of New South Wales is looking to capitalise on the push toward reducing diesel emissions in underground mining operations in Australia by supplying Rokion battery-powered crew and utility vehicles that not only decarbonise mining environments, but also potentially boost mine productivity.
LDO has held the exclusive distributor mantle for Canada-made Rokion battery-powered vehicles in Australasia since 2018. In that two-year period, the company has seen interest in electrification gradually increase.
In South Australia, BHP has trialled light electric utility vehicles at Olympic Dam with Voltra’s LandCruiser conversions. In Victoria, Safescape’s Bortana EV has built up four months’ worth of usage data from Kirkland Lake Gold’s Fosterville mine; the vehicle has also had a brief outing in Western Australia’s renowned Kambalda nickel district. Other mine-ready utility vehicles have also made an appearance in Australia such as the Tembo 4×4 Electric Cruiser and Electric HLX.
These come on top of the battery-electric ST14 LHD Epiroc has delivered to the Glencore-owned CSA mine at Cobar in New South Wales, plus the interest logged from the recent tour of Sandvik-owned Artisan Vehicle Systems’ Z50 battery-electric haul truck.
The last 12 months has been a busy period for LDO, with initial interest from the Australian market being converted into trials (more on that later) or much more advanced discussions, according to LDO Managing Director, Peter Ross.
“There has always been an interest since we started looking into this in 2015, but, in the last year especially, we have seen it spread right throughout the coal industry,” he told IM.
It is the Australian coal sector the company is currently focused on, a market that, until now, has been further down the pecking order for battery-electric vehicle producers. Most have homed in on the country’s hard-rock mines.
Underground coal mines are also a new environment for Rokion’s trucks, which are currently proving their worth at Vale’s Sudbury nickel operations in Canada.
Alan Ross, Sales Manager at LDO Group, says the Rokion battery-powered vehicles are prepared for the challenge of operating in an underground coal mining environment.
“Most of the tailoring is from an Australian regulatory perspective,” Alan Ross said. “The machine has already been specifically designed for underground environments, so will be able to cope with these conditions.”
While acknowledging the “serious competition” from other electric vehicle suppliers, Peter Ross said the Rokion products are second to none in their class: “Rokion trucks are engineered from the ground up for mine use, and built by an OEM with significant mining pedigree – these vehicles are not conversions.”
He added: “It’s all well and good having battery-powered machines, but they have to be able to deal with the realities of operating in an underground mine, protecting personnel while navigating roads and ramps that can deteriorate from one hour to the next.”
The benefits of improved drive ergonomics and environmental conditions are often overlooked while focusing on vehicle performance, according to Peter Ross.
“Our trucks produce no emissions, generate less heat and less noise than all other mining vehicles,” he said. While difficult to measure, it is expected that an improved working environment would allow mine personnel to perform to their potential, boosting overall mine performance.
Drive ergonomics and employee performance are not the only selling points.
Rokion trucks are equipped with lithium iron phosphate batteries – the safest battery technology currently available, according to Rokion. Battery modules are (re)charged on ramp descent thanks to the vehicle’s regenerative braking capacity, which contributes to longer operating times without charge. Other benefits include reduced brake and drive wear, extending the duration between maintenance intervals, Rokion says.
The vehicles can also navigate mine sites with 20% grade at a full gross vehicle weight and full speed while travelling more than 70 km per charge – typically more than enough to get the battery through a full shift.
On top of this, Rokion has manufactured its battery-powered vehicles for simple and easy maintenance.
The modular change-out options – which extend to both the battery and drive system – are “ideal for remote mining locations where the priority is to have dedicated service personnel with expertise in production mining equipment rather than in electric vehicle technologies”, Rokion says. This will come in handy in the coal mining hub of the Bowen Basin, in Queensland, where maintenance staff with battery-electric expertise are in demand and in short supply.
It is this region where LDO has made some serious headway of late with the Rokion vehicles.
The BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) is in the process of preparing a Rokion R400 to go underground at the Broadmeadow mine, near Moranbah in the Bowen Basin. This follows an above-ground trial of the smaller Rokion R200 at the same mine.
BMA is a 50:50 joint venture between BHP and Mitsubishi Development Co that operates seven metallurgical coal mines in the Bowen Basin, plus the Hay Point Coal Terminal near Mackay.
Paul Wyatt, Electrical Engineering Manager, Governance & Technical Stewardship Superintendent at BMA Broadmeadow, said the company initially visited Rokion in Canada back in 2017. At this time, the Rokion range included the R100 that came in a two-passenger utility or four-person crew configuration and the R200, built on a slightly larger four-passenger vehicle platform with double the battery capacity (44 kWh).
On the lookout for a battery-electric personnel carrier vehicle to test at its Australian mine sites, BHP agreed to trial an R200 at Broadmeadow. This was part of a group-wide project to reduce health impacts from diesel particulate matter exposure at BHP underground operations.
In 2018, the R200 then took part in an above-ground trial at the underground Broadmeadow mine.
Wyatt explained to IM: “We mapped the underground RLs (Reduced Levels) and we did a series of trials around the surface of the mine to get a grip on the dynamics of the machine, its performance in this replicated environment, the charging time, and how it coped with the extreme heat of Australia compared with Canada where it had previously worked.”
This trial proved successful on all fronts.
“That surface trial laid the platform for us to move into the underground environment,” Wyatt said. “We then knew the vehicle was capable of working underground, and we also knew it could be charged on the surface ahead of a shift and would not need charging again.”
The latter factor was important for the Broadmeadow team as the establishment of underground charging infrastructure would have added complexity to the project.
A zonal system coordinated through RFID tags on the R200 and underground mine infrastructure meant the non-explosion-protected vehicle could roam around 80% of the underground mine without entering hazardous areas close to the working face. Modifications to the gas monitoring capabilities of the machine also meant it ticked the regulatory box required for underground coal mine use.
More testing ensued, with the results, again, proving positive.
“The operators liked the quietness of the machine, the reduced heat generation and the fact you could have a conversation with other people while operating the vehicle,” Wyatt said.
The Broadmeadow team were still keen to see how the newest Rokion machines would perform at the underground mine considering the product advancements the Rokion Engineering team had made since the 2018 R200 was delivered for testing, hence the latest R400 trial.
The R400 platform allows for a diverse range of vehicle configurations from three or six passenger utility up to nine or 12 passenger crew variants, Rokion says. It also comes with 100 kWh of battery capacity and a much smoother ride, according to Wyatt.
Wyatt said the R400 was only weeks away from going underground at the mine after arriving at Broadmeadow earlier this year.
While using the same underground blueprint the R200 had in place – coordinated through the RFID tags equipped on the machine and mine – the R400 will be used as a “development support” vehicle in this latest trial, taking people close to the working face, but staying within the ‘non-hazardous’ zones of the mine as the R400 is not yet explosion-protected, something Rokion and LDO are working toward changing.
The two companies are expecting to release the explosion-protected version of the R400 sometime in 2021.
This is not the only battery-electric machine set to be tested at Broadmeadow in the medium term, with a battery-electric LHD trial also being eyed up, according to Darren Wood, BMA Broadmeadow’s Project Manager of Mods & Small Projects.
In the meantime, the R400 trial will allow Broadmeadow to gain a better understanding of how it could eventually use battery-electric utility vehicles for crews of up to 12: the number it currently transports in diesel-powered personnel carriers at the mine.
Rokion says it is well positioned to meet this demand as development of a 12-passenger R400 is now complete while development of an explosion-protected model is well underway.
The BEV race
LDO hopes the progression of the R400 trial at Broadmeadow will generate further interest in battery-powered technologies in Australia.
BMA’s reviews to date will help this cause, with Wyatt saying the advancements in engineering from the R200 it had on trial to the new R400 waiting to go underground at Broadmeadow were impressive.
LDO will be hoping to make the most of this opportunity, ensuring it retains its lead over battery-electric competitors only now starting to look at Australia’s underground coal market as a lucrative proposition.