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First Mode's next step to zero emissions

Metal Tech News - March 6, 2023

Installing fuel cells in more than 400 mining trucks for Anglo American.

Only two months after a $1.5 billion transaction that transformed First Mode from a Seattle-based space mission engineering startup into a clean-energy subsidiary of global mining company Anglo American, the clean-energy firm is already busy retrofitting massive mining trucks with hydrogen fuel cells produced by Ballard Power Systems.

Given First Mode's rapid ascent in the clean energy space, it is little surprise that the firm is making rapid advances toward its initial goal of retrofitting more than 400 Anglo American ultra-class haul trucks with fuel cells and related components for zero-carbon-emission operations.

"First Mode was founded in 2018 with the goal of building the barely possible. We have done just that, and our mission is now to rapidly decarbonize heavy industry by dramatically reducing our customers' greenhouse gas emissions," said Chris Voorhees, co-founder and chief product and technology officer at First Mode.

Space-age tech

Formed by veterans of an asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources, First Mode initially focused on projects such as NASA's Perseverance rover mission and the upcoming mission to metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The company's growing relationship with Anglo American combines First Mode's creative engineering and Anglo American's zero-emission solutions to help accelerate the green transition of mining and other heavy industries a bit closer to home.

First Mode initially partnered with Ballard in 2019 to supply fuel cells for a two-megawatt hybrid hydrogen and battery powerplant, the first of its kind in the world. The powerplant replaced a 300-ton Komatsu ultra-class haul truck's diesel engine operating at Anglo American's platinum group metals mine site in Mogalakwena, South Africa.

Building on the joint success of introducing the world's largest zero-emission haul truck, First Mode entered into a global supply agreement to decarbonize Anglo American's remaining international fleet of over 400 ultra-class haul trucks in operation to run on hydrogen and battery power.

First Mode's solution would also provide associated site infrastructure, offering an end-to-end decarbonization method.

"We started First Mode to solve meaningful and difficult problems," says Voorhees. "Climate change and energy security are the paramount challenges of our time, and I am so proud this will be First Mode's focus as we enter this next phase of growth. Now is the right time, and this is the right team, to build the barely possible for this extraordinary set of problems."

Bringing in Ballard

On March 1, a purchase order for 30 hydrogen fuel cell modules from Ballard was made by First Mode to be integrated into clean energy vehicle powerplants being built in Seattle. They will be installed into several hybrid hydrogen and battery ultra-class haul trucks operating at First Mode's proving grounds in Centralia, Washington.

This is the next step in First Mode's overhaul of the Anglo American fleet.

The order, totaling three megawatts, is the equivalent of approximately 4,000 horsepower. When installed, the integrated trucks are estimated to save 2,600 tons of diesel fuel each year.

"We are excited to expand our important collaboration with First Mode," says David Mucciacciaro, Ballard's chief commercial officer. "The mining industry annually contributes up to 7% of the world's carbon emissions and roughly half of these emissions comes from mobile diesel applications, including haul trucks. Together with First Mode, we are continuing to demonstrate a viable pathway to decarbonize mining trucks by using Ballard's leading hydrogen fuel cells. These additional truck deployments highlight the opportunities ahead for fuel cell commercialization in hard-to-abate sectors."

The power management systems in the haul trucks have been developed to improve overall efficiency by recovering energy through regenerative braking when traveling downhill. This energy, stored in the battery together with the hydrogen, extends range and reduces downtime for the trucks since hydrogen refueling is significantly faster than recharging batteries.

For the zero-emission fleet, First Mode has also built a hydrogen production, storage, and refueling complex at Mogalakwena that incorporates a solar photovoltaic field and the largest electrolyzer in Africa to support operations.

The technology for the trucks and the fueling and charging infrastructure will then be tested at the Washington proving grounds.

First Mode's proving grounds is located at a former TransAlta coal mine site in the process of reclamation, enabling analysis of vehicle operations in a full mine site infrastructure and true mining environment.

By starting the transition to clean energy with the mining industry, the First Mode-Anglo American team plans to provide critical mine site infrastructure for hydrogen production, refueling, and battery recharging, eventually scaling up to contribute to the larger supply chain and completely eliminate the use of diesel by heavy industry worldwide.

"Every one of the Ballard fuel cell modules that First Mode retrofits into an ultra-class haul truck means an immediate reduction in diesel fuel use and moving the mining industry another step closer to decarbonization," says First Mode CEO Julian Soles.

Fuel's next generation

Anglo American Platinum Ltd. is the world's largest primary producer of platinum, accounting for about 38% of the world's annual supply. The platinum group metals mine site in Mogalakwena, South Africa, is anticipated to be one of the next stops for additional members of the hybridized fleet.

The platinum metals arm of the international company with the same name has long championed the hydrogen economy's role in enabling the shift to greener transportation.

"Hydrogen has a significant and wide-ranging role to play in achieving a low carbon future – particularly as an energy carrier enabling the development of a renewables-based power generation system," says Natascha Viljoen, chief executive officer of Anglo American Platinum.

And the Platinum group metals produced by the South African mining company possess catalytic properties that are used in fuel cells to split hydrogen molecules into electrons that create a flow of electricity and protons that unite with oxygen to produce water vapor exhaust and heat.

As an environmentally conscious producer of copper, platinum group metals, iron ore and nickel, Anglo American is committed to supplying the electrification of heavy industry and transportation with carbon-neutral operations by 2040.

This opens the mining industry itself to a historic example of a green circular economy in action – the first massive hydrogen fuel cell trucks working in operations producing the very materials that make those same fuel cells-and future generations of energy-possible.


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