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Vale and Glencore team up on electric mining vehicle safety

Big Sudbury miners realized safety goals could be better achieved by working together than tackling problems alone
220922_LG_Vale Glencore safety PhotoSized
Raphael Tiangco, Vale's superintendent of mobile fleet management (left), and Steve Holmik, the mobile equipment specialist at Glencore's Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations, were speakers at the CIM mining conference held in Sudbury.

Sudbury’s two large mining companies are working together on the transition to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to make it safer to operate those vehicles on surface and in underground mines.

The partnership between Vale Canada and Glencore was revealed at the Maintenance, Engineering and Mine Operators Conference in Sudbury held in Sudbury Sept. 18-21. This was one of several sessions that were held in the Innovation and New Technology category.

The presentation was made by Raphael Tiangco, Vale's superintendent of mobile fleet management, and Steve Holmik, Glencore's mobile equipment specialist at Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations.

Tiangco said that back in 2019, it was realized that while the original equipment manufacturing (OEM) companies knew how to design and build mining vehicles, they didn't know the demands or specifications from the mining companies.

Holmik said the specs have changed and improved considerably in the past couple of years and he said it was thanks to the openness and sharing of the OEMs and the mining companies. 

Tiangco said Sudbury area mining companies have been using different types of electric-powered vehicles since 1976, in various configurations and for numerous equipment trials.

In the past 35 to 40 years in Canadian mining, diesel-powered equipment has been the norm, mainly because diesel machines are robust and cost-efficient in many ways.

Battery vehicles are becoming the new norm because the batteries are finally powerful enough to handle the demands of mining, while being quieter and safer in terms of having no exhaust emissions. This also means that the cost of ventilating a mine with massive electric fans will be significantly cheaper.

Both Tiangco and Holmik said the future of battery vehicles is now, and they are here to stay.

"Yeah, a couple of years ago, when I was getting into this, I thought, ‘OK, well, what is the future of electric vehicles in mining? Is it just just a fly-by-night thing?’ But (I) pretty quickly realized that 'No, BEVs are not just a fly-by-night thing,' and we need to start looking at the successful adoption of BEVs within the mining industry," Holmik said.

Tiangco said they knew there was a lot they didn't know. 

"I'm talking about all the internal stakeholders, both at Vale and Glencore, recognized that we know that we don't know a lot about battery electric vehicles and the risks that are inherent in their use in a mining environment," Tiangco said. 

"We needed to do some detailed risk analyses," he added.

Vale uses a risk management tool known as Bowtie to map out risks and solutions. 

Tiangco said the concern was what to do about the possible risk of a fire or electrocution. He said Vale and Glencore team members spent hours, days and weeks going over possible scenarios where fire or electric shock hazard might occur. Tiangco said the detailed information from their Bowtie analysis was forwarded to the OEM companies for their input.

Tiangco said they were surprised to find that the OEMs were hesitant to talk about their risk management procedures for their battery vehicles because a lot of that information was proprietary. Most of the information was a trade secret.

He said the companies examined the scenarios put forward by Glencore and Vale and came back with assurances that the concerns were already considered and safety measures were already built into the batteries and vehicles they had designed.

"So prior to coming in to talking to our OEMs they had already done this work and they had shown us, you know, here are the things that we have done to prevent these things (fire, electrocution) from happening. And as a side benefit some of the things that they talked to us about, we actually incorporated those into our specification," Tiangco said.

The mining companies also learned that BEVs need coolant to keep the batteries from getting too warm.

Holmik related a couple of incidents that occurred in the past few years where fires occurred on battery-powered mine vehicles. 

One happened in Sudbury, the other happened “up North.” In one case, coolant fluid was conductive and came into contact with electricity. In the other case, during a maintenance procedure, a fuse was not properly reinstalled on a piece of equipment. Instead, a shunt was used where a fuse was supposed to go. A power surge happened and a fire occurred. 

Holmik said it was learned that unusual hazards exist and how to deal with them. 

Tiangco said the partnership has resulted in both Vale and Glencore developing specifications for BEVs that are better than anything they might have developed by working alone. He said another benefit was the partnership itself.

“We've developed some very good relationships, both within our companies, with other companies, and with our OEMs that we are, to this day, continually leveraging to improve the introduction of this new technology into our environments,” said Tiangco.