The electrification of mining

mining oil sands

The next generation of mining technologies is revolutionizing oil sands mining operations, carrying the sector into the digital age. An array of innovation, everything from automated truck fleets to artificial intelligence, is significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting safety and efficiency, and lowering operating costs across mine sites in Canada and around the world. In Alberta, about 20 per cent of the oil sands is shallow enough to be mined and innovation success here is delivering a wide range of environmental and economic benefits.

One focus for COSIA members in COSIA’s Greenhouse Gases Environmental Priority Area is how mine materials are handled. “Materials handling is a big part of mining and a significant cost for the industry,” explains Anthony Van Tol, Mine Automation Project Engineer at Suncor and one of several member representatives who lends his expertise to COSIA’s Mining Working Group. “We’re looking for ways to move materials more efficiently and reduce emissions. This is a big push across the mining sector.”

Van Tol is involved in a project to reduce the reliance of mine haul truck fleets on diesel fuel. These giant vehicles transport materials from the mine face to processing facilities and are the primary source of emissions on site. Some of the approaches the group is investigating are cleaner fuels, improving haul truck design, and implementing trolley (electric) assist. 

The group collaborates with the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) to evaluate new technologies and engages with industrial truck manufacturers to align research efforts. It’s all part of developing the oil sands as sustainably as possible and supporting Canada’s efforts to meet its emissions targets.

Statistics show mining trucks run at peak power about 30 per cent of the time, which means that 70 per cent of the time, power is wasted idling. What if the trucks could access power when they needed it, just the right amount at the right time? That’s what electrification achieves. The proven technology has been successfully applied to mining in other parts of the world and is now being adapted for the oil sands. 

It involves replacing a truck’s mechanical drive and diesel motor with an electrical drive and battery. Overhead trolley lines are installed on main transportation routes and the truck is fitted with a rooftop contact system to access power. “The trucks hook on and off the overhead line as and when they need to,” Van Tol explains. “When they connect, they run off electricity and when they disconnect, they run off battery. It’s very efficient because the truck only takes the power it needs.”

Other vehicle enhancements include regenerative braking, an energy recovery mechanism that kicks in when trucks go downhill. When braking, the vehicle makes use of a generator to slow down the vehicle, while also generating power that goes back into the electricity network. “All these improvements support efficiencies in the running of your entire fleet,” Van Tol notes. As innovation proves viable, best practices are shared among COSIA members and more broadly, delivering benefits across the mining industry, he says.

Interested in stories like these? Check out
•    Take a virtual tour of an oil sands mine 
•    Cleaning up carbon dioxide 
•    Oil and Gas 101: Hydrogen 

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