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Fuelling innovation

Dr Khay Wai See
Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials

Electrifying the transportation fleet in underground mining to improve environmental and health safety outcomes

Dr See, who is a senior researcher at the Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials, believes that while the renewable energy movement is gaining popularity, underground coal mining will remain a backbone for the Australian economy for some time to come. While this provides employment for many Australians, the conditions they work under can be arduous and in many cases dangerous. One of the key dangers faced by workers stems from the use of diesel-powered machinery.

The diesel commonly used within mining machinery and transportation vehicles generates diesel particulate matter (DPM). When inhaled DPM can cause a plethora of health problems, including skin irritation, asthma and other respiratory complaints, as well as lung cancer. Another common complaint is hearing damage, which can be attributed to noise pollution from loud diesel-powered machines. The confined spaces with minimal ventilation exacerbate the problem.

The mining industry understands these are genuine problems for their workforce, and when key stakeholders saw what Dr See and his team were working on, they approached them to help solve the problem.

At the time Dr See was working on projects for the Auto Cooperative Research Centre, in which they developed battery management systems to be incorporated into automotive applications. The team successfully built a fully electrified, road-registered car, capable of travelling a good distance on one charge. The mining sector recognised the potential to improve the inefficiencies of their current diesel fleet.

The idea of electrifying the diesel fleet in mining isn’t new, with efforts made in the 90s, but with advances in lithium battery technology, it has now become a viable option. Dr See and his team are at the forefront of these specialised innovations and ways to best use the technology in what is sometimes volatile environments.

“About two to three years ago, we started to look at using lithium batteries within the mining industry.

“The use of them above ground was one thing, but underground was a little different. People are reluctant to test batteries underground due to the presence of methane gas and the sparking and flash mechanism within batteries, which creates a significant chance of explosion.”

After travelling to various coal mines around the world and engaging with industry partners, Dr See has overseen the development of a lithium battery which operates within a lightweight explosion-proof housing.

Due to be trialled in the field early next year, Dr See says his research has only been given the opportunity to make real-world impact through the engagement of good industry partners.

“Every researcher works within their own work space and we need to get our products and research out in to the real world, so it isn’t wasted. We need to get their industry specific opinions and ideas, to apply our research to their problems. Only then can we benefit each other equally.”

While there are still challenges to navigate in regards to change and process management within the field and economically viable numbers for machinery build, Dr See is confident his current and future innovations will have a significant impact for coal miners.

“It is time to transform this industry into a more sustainable one, and by working on the complex problems first, more doors can be opened by developing solutions which can be scaled back to requirements.”