Hydrogen has risen to dizzy heights in recent years as a promising zero-carbon fuel across the world, and although many hydrogen energy systems are in the demonstration phase, the mining sector is set to be an early adopter. FRAN MOLLOY reports
In 2019, the Australian government announced the National Hydrogen Strategy, setting a path and committing substantial funding to accelerate the commercialisation of hydrogen energy and build a strong domestic hydrogen sector.
And in March 2020, four mining giants - BHP, Fortescue, Anglo American and Hatch – formed the Green Hydrogen Consortium, pledging to work together to accelerate renewable energy-powered hydrogen production and its application to the resources sector and other heavy industries.
"There are a whole range of opportunities for hydrogen in the mining sector," says Dr Daniel Roberts, who is the Director of the CSIRO Hydrogen Energy Future Science Platform.
"There's a strong drive to decarbonise mining operations. Hydrogen can be used to store renewable energy to generate electricity, it can power equipment and trucks and cars, and it can even be used in certain mining processes as a reductant," Dr Roberts says.
Roberts' group is part of a wider CSIRO effort to support the emerging hydrogen industry, which includes a $20 million partnership between CSIRO and Fortescue Metals Group to develop industry applications of CSIRO's metal membrane technology, which can rapidly convert hydrogen from ammonia, used to easily transport and store hydrogen.
Announcing the partnership in 2018, Fortescue's chair Andrew Forrest said, "We are at the beginning of an energy revolution and Fortescue intends to be at the forefront of this once-in-a-generation opportunity."
Future Science Platform
CSIRO's Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platform is a key research centre working on new science and technology which will allow industry – including the mining sector – to decarbonise operations, transport and production processes.
"Much of our work involves the foundational science and the technology development that’s not yet ready for our industry partners to invest in, but which has the potential to grow the hydrogen energy industry," says Dr Roberts.
The group works with low-readiness level hydrogen technologies, he explains. This involves creating new capabilities and new technologies around hydrogen production, transport, and use from a variety of renewable sources, and bringing these to demonstration stage.
CSIRO business units then work with industry partners to kick off the technology commercialisation pipeline to bring these innovations to market.
The push to decarbonise
The mining industry plays a crucial role in Australia's economic future. According to the World Economic Forum, however, the sector’s ongoing viability will rely on its ability to meet expectations from governments, investors and wider society to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In June 2020, the Minerals Council of Australia released its Climate Action Plan which spelled out a range of actions to decarbonise the industry, including the use of renewable hydrogen.
A January 2020 report titled 'Climate risk and decarbonisation: What every mining CEO needs to know,' produced by McKinsey & Company notes that the resources sector contributes around one per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally through its mining operations and electricity. (Fugitive-methane emissions from coal mining contribute a further three to six per cent of global emissions, the report adds.)
"Mines theoretically can fully decarbonise through operational efficiency, electrification, and renewable-energy use," the report states, also noting that, while hydrogen fuel-cell technology is not yet mature, it has the potential to fully decarbonise on-site emissions from mines.
Opportunities for hydrogen in mining
Dr Roberts says the use of 'green' hydrogen energy is currently a hot topic in the resources sector. There are already numerous examples where renewable-sourced hydrogen is actively used as an energy source and as a means for storing renewable energy in the mining industry.
Since 2015, Glencore's Raglan mine, in northern Quebec, Canada, has run on a micro-grid powered by an arctic-rated wind turbine generator connected to a hydrogen energy storage unit.
"By producing and storing energy on site, rather than transporting diesel to a very remote site, they saw a big reduction in diesel use and cost, with associated carbon emissions," says Roberts.
Once the initial investment in renewables-to-hydrogen is made, the gas can be used as fuel in a range of different applications, from operations, to refining and transport.
In October 2019, Anglo American announced the development of the world’s largest hydrogen-powered mine haul truck, a 290-tonne giant which will be trialled at the Mogalakwena platinum group metals mine in South Africa later this year.
Also in South Africa's platinum mines, Impala is using hydrogen fuel cells for forklifts and refuelling stations within its refinery operations.
Hydrogen driving green steel
One of the most interesting areas emerging for renewable-sourced hydrogen is in traditionally hard-to-abate sectors, Roberts says – and "green steel" is a much-talked about example.
"Steelmaking commonly occurs in a blast furnace, using coke which is made from coal through a highly carbon-intensive process," he says. Coke has a few roles to play in the blast furnace, providing heat and structure, as well as acting as a reducing agent, removing oxygen from the iron ore.
As well as being a useful energy carrier, hydrogen is also a good reducing agent. "There's enormous interest in developing technologies that can use both the heat and the energy from hydrogen along with that reducing power," Roberts says.
"At the moment, hydrogen is only used as a part-replacement for coal or coke in steel operations, but in these large-scale undertakings, even a partial replacement of a large amount of carbon can make a significant impact."
Future of hydrogen in mining
Roberts says that the focus of mining operators considering hydrogen is often on cost-saving around diesel consumption and transport, which can be considerable on remote sites.
"There's also a push towards creating products domestically that have a real environmental and sustainability advantage, which can differentiate Australia from some of our international competitors who don't have access to the same level of renewable energy resources."
He says the key message for mining now is that much of the technology exists, and in many cases is proven – the next step is just doing it.
"It's a great time for the sector to start deploying some big electrolysers out there, demonstrate some utilisation pathways, and be the leaders who revolutionise the industry and get that competitive advantage."