Electric Vehicles

Mining and the BEV


Mining and the BEV
© CCD Studio


Certainly, the battery electric vehicle (commonly known as the BEV) has captured the interest of a great many people. However, the concept is not necessarily new. I suspect that you would be surprised to know that the first electric vehicle with its own power source (i.e., a battery) was tested along a Paris street in April 1881 by French inventor Gustave Trouvé. This first iteration of an electric vehicle was a tricycle with a rechargeable lead-acid battery and an efficient electric motor. 

A few years later, the first electric car in the United States was developed by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa. It was a six-passenger wagon that could reach a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

In 1897 in New York City, the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company began running 12 electric hansom cabs. The company ran until 1898 with up to 62 cabs operating until it was reformed by its financiers to form the Electric Vehicle Company. 

Electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell and noise associated with gasoline-powered cars. They also did not require gear changes. (Note: While steam-powered cars also had no necessity for gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings.) The cars were also preferred because they didn’t crank to start as did ICE gasoline cars, which typically employed a hand crank. 

Beginning in the early 20th Century, the high cost, low top speed, and short range of BEVs compared to ICE vehicles led to a decline in their use as private vehicles. Electric vehicles have continued to be used for loading and freight equipment as well as for public transport—especially rail vehicles such as street cars.

Beginning in the late 1960s, government regulations—especially those regarding emissions—led to a massive reconfiguration of motor vehicles. Similarly, by the late 1970s there were restrictions placed on fuel consumption. This led to significant ICE design changes, including catalytic exhaust systems that were designed to reduce nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons. Engine size was reduced while engine efficiency was improved, so that by the early 21st Century, the same horsepower that delivered to the wheels of an ICE-powered vehicle was the same or slightly better than an ICE vehicle of the 1970s, at half the displacement. As I have noted before, my first vehicle was a 1957 Chevy with a 283-cubic inch (4.6-liter) V-8, which delivered about 160 brake horsepower, or bhp. My latest vehicle, a 2020 Honda Pilot with a 3.5 L V-6, delivers 280 bhp.

BEVs are of great interest due to the push sponsored by the federal government to eliminate exhaust emissions. Now it really gets interesting. While the exhaust emissions are indeed reduced to virtually zero, other questions have arisen. Without discussion, some of the major issues are battery range, weight and performance at lower temperatures. Infrastructure problems include insufficient power generation, charging stations and power transmission lines. I’m not going to dwell on any of these topics in this column, but there needs to be a lot more thought and work put into all of these issues before BEVs can be truly successful.

What I want to look at this time is the process of producing batteries and especially the exploration and production of the raw materials needed to create them. Of course, you have to know what those materials are, so here is a partial list: copper, lithium, zinc, nickel, cadmium, manganese, molybdenum, cobalt and silver. And these are just the electric parts. There are numerous other materials that are used for the final battery body.

When you look at that list you may recognize that there are a number of different mining and refining processes that are used to get the elements out of their native ore. However, open pit mining is the main method used to get to the ore.

From the bottom up, the first project is to remove the overburden (non-ore bearing material) to get to the ore body. This is done the old-fashioned way: by digging it up and hauling it away. The vehicles used to haul this away are massive and are often powered with diesel-electric power plants. The electricity is provided by massive diesel engines turning a generator, which in turn drive electric motors at each of the wheels and treads (often through gear reduction systems).

The engines are massive, with horsepower ratings in the low 1,000s, all to generate electricity for the motors at the wheels. The shovels are also electric and lift ore at the rate of 5-10 cubic yards per scoop. The true scope of these operations is really amazing. One of the first visits I made to an open pit mine was in Arizona in the early 1970s. I walked up to one of the ore haulers and realized that my head was about level with the center of the wheel! I’m about six feet tall, so here is this machine dwarfing me hauling 50-60 cubic yards of ore. The truck picked up a load and started up the side of the pit. The truck followed the wall and was timed up the slope by measuring the time between mile posts set at increments of one-tenth of a mile. When the truck took more time than was normal for that tenth of a mile, it was taken out of service and overhauled.

When the ore reached the top of the pit, it was dropped into a gyratory crusher where it was broken into a smaller size. It was then fed into either a ball or autonomous mill and finally ground down to a relatively fine powder. Depending on the operations at the site, it is mixed with a water solution and treated with electric current to separate the copper and other elements. In the mine I visited, the byproducts were silver, gold and molybdenum. In fact, enough gold and silver were collected to pay the electric bill.

This is a description of a modern open pit mine. In some undeveloped countries, the ore is collected by hand and carried out of the pit by human labor. This represents a humanitarian crisis in the eyes of developed countries, as the ore is often collected by children.

Underground mining is not so different from open pit mining in operation, but the size is necessarily smaller. Depending on what is mined, electricity is used to power all underground mining equipment. This is a safety practice. Coal mining is especially hazardous due to coal dust in the air, which can be ignited by electrical sparks. Wherever possible, open pit mining Is preferred for safety and ore removal.

Obviously, mining on this scale has been traditionally done with internal combustion engines and electromotive power. Because of the very large size of the equipment, electromotive arrangements are preferred. Since batteries are very heavy, it makes sense to generate electricity onboard. There is a lot of history coming from the electromotive railroad locomotive, which is also a positive. For a Class 8 over-the-road tractor-trailer combination, it has been estimated that 1,000-kilowatt hour batteries would be required to match current ICE equipment in load carrying capability. Imagine the battery requirements for an ore hauler! It would seem that ICE power would be much more desirable in this case.

The lubrication requirements for these engines are typically well known, although the EMD two-cycle locomotive engines require specialized lubricants due to corrosion issues related to silver alloy bearings. Engine oils falling under the current API category are suitable. In any case, the technology required is known. It is efficient and cost effective.

There are other types of fluids that are not specifically affected by electrification. Gear oils, greases and hydraulic fluids are probably not going to be changed appreciably. For the electricity issues, there is a need for a fluid coolant to prevent batteries from overheating. 

The bottom line for me is that ICEs, especially for certain applications, are a requirement for today’s work that will not be going away any time soon. Specialized applications will continue to surface, and it appears that only heavy-duty products currently make the difference.  

Steve Swedberg is an industry consultant with over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society, ASTM International and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at steveswedberg@cox.net.