Two latest deals see Ballard supplying fuel cell modules to First Mode, which is making zero-emission powertrains for its owner, miner Anglo American
Fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems recently signed its second contract this year with a company recently purchased by Anglo American, one of the world’s largest miners. Both deals will see Ballard components incorporated into hydrogen fuel cell-electric battery powertrains for Anglo American’s large mining trucks.
Under the terms of its latest contract, Vancouver-based Ballard will send 60 hydrogen fuel cell modules to First Mode, a London-based industrial clean energy engineering firm, in 2024. That announcement came three months after Ballard and First Mode agreed on a 30-module purchase.
Ballard’s modules will be shipped to First Mode’s operations in Seattle. There, First Mode will integrate the devices into its “nuGen” power plant which combines the fuel cell, battery and related infrastructure to create a hybrid hydrogen-battery powertrain. That system can then replace the existing diesel powertrains in Anglo American’s ultra-class mining haul trucks.
Each of those trucks currently produces 2,600 tons of CO2e a year, equal to the emissions from 700 passenger vehicles.
Fuel cell-battery combination
“The fuel cell is the primary power, but the batteries are used for the electric drive train,” says Jeff Mayhew, Ballard’s manager of capital markets, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
After testing, the devices will be forwarded to Anglo American, which took a controlling stake in First Mode in January after working with the company for several years. It is using First Mode to retrofit its fleet of 400-plus, ultra-class trucks with hybrid hydrogen fuel cell-electric battery powertrains.
According to Ballard, 10 modules produce 1 megawatt of power. That’s roughly the amount needed to power each mining truck in the nuGen system.
“Once all of these deals are complete, there will be a single-digit number of trucks running with fuel cell hybrid power trains,” Mayhew says.
The deal is part of a wider movement to integrate hydrogen fuel cell technology into zero emission heavy-duty vehicles. It’s a trend in which Ballard hopes to play a growing part.
In January, Ballard also signed onto a pilot project to develop hydrogen fuel cell-electric trucks for mining logistics and transportation with two partners in India, Adani Enterprises and Ashok Leyland.
Mayhew believes that companies are realizing that a battery powertrain, by itself, doesn’t have the framework or energy capabilities to power a large heavy-duty vehicle in a location where energy availability may be scarce.
“The infrastructure challenges and remote locations of mines are difficult to get electricity, or enough electricity, to fast charge one of these vehicles,” Mayhew says.
Several years in the making
Ballard has been working with Anglo American to decarbonize mining haul trucks for over a decade. It initially partnered with First Mode in 2019 on a project with Anglo American to develop a converted diesel to hydrogen-electric 220-tonne prototype.
Anglo American, which has committed to making its operations carbon neutral by 2040, unveiled the vehicle in May 2022. A short time later, it announced its plan to purchase First Mode, simultaneously launching a program to use the nuGen system to retrofit its entire ultra-class haul truck fleet.
“The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change,” said Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s chief product and technology officer, in the press release at the prototype’s unveiling.
“I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to affect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek. We hope that this zero-emission clean energy breakthrough will inspire others to create significant action in the fight for our planet.”
Mayhew says Anglo American’s decision to revamp its fleet came after the success of the prototype, which showed a hybrid fuel cell-battery powertrain would be a better option than a battery electric on its own.
For one, the nuGen package also includes a system for producing green hydrogen on-site. That means it is sustainable and self-contained.
Additionally, the combination of power systems is more powerful than its diesel predecessor. This helps the mining trucks — which can weigh up to 510 tonnes with payload — navigate tricky terrain and high payloads.
“Having enough power to get up those hills is a key design consideration that fuel cells need to satisfy,” Mayhew says.
Other promising sectors
Ballard identifies six markets where hydrogen fuel cells have the highest decarbonization value, in terms of cost ownership for users.
The first four sectors include buses, heavy-duty trucks, trains and marine modes of transport like ferries.
But Mayhew also highlights the two other categories. One is “emerging markets” which includes Anglo American’s mining haul truck and other businesses looking for energy in remote locations. The other is stationary power, such as replacing diesel generators with hydrogen fuel cells.
Across the board, the key to future growth is delivering on projects that showcase the potential in Ballard’s technology.
“I think we’re in the process of just replicating,” Mayhew says. “We’re focused on shipping good, quality products that perform as expected.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated July 3, 2023, to include information about Anglo American’s purchase of First Mode.