First Mode building hydrogen fuel cell to power one of the biggest zero-emission vehicles on Earth

Haul truck
An ultra-class haul truck carries tons of ore. (Anglo American Photo)

Seattle engineering company First Mode is building a hydrogen fuel cell generator capable of lighting up Lumen Field. But the technology is destined for an environment far from the bright lights of a football stadium.

In a few months, First Mode will take the generator to South Africa, where it will be retrofitted into a massive, 300-metric-ton haul truck to create “one of the biggest zero-emission vehicles on the planet,” said Chris Voorhees, the company’s president and chief engineer.

It’s part of a three-year, $13.5 million deal First Mode signed with global mining giant Anglo American in 2019, and part of a new direction for a company that got its start working on spacecraft and Mars rovers.

“The robotic exploration of the solar system, that’s where the DNA of the company is,” Voorhees said. But the way they would go about solving engineering problems in space — where “you never have enough mass, you never have enough volume, you never have enough power and you never have enough data, and your environment is trying to kill you” — led Voorhees and his team to think they could tackle engineering challenges in other extreme environments.

“We thought that (process) was portable to other problems,” he said. “We didn’t know where that adventure was going to take us.”

This particular path brought the space company down to Earth.

Hydrogen-powered truck
A rendering shows the components of a hydrogen-fueled mine haul truck. (Anglo American Graphic)

Ultra-class haul trucks are a far different type of vehicle than the Mars rovers the First Mode teams have worked on in the past.

For starters, they’re as tall as a three-story building, and they weigh “about a million pounds,” Voorhees said. They’re built to carry up to 300 metric tons of ore from open-pit mines to nearby processing plants. Anglo-American operates fleets of these dinosaur-sized Tonka trucks at its mines, each one burning thousands of gallons of diesel to fuel the 2-megawatt on-board generator that powers each vehicle.

“It’s a lot of diesel and you have dozens of machines running continuously on site,” he said. Taking just one of the haulers out of operation will eliminate about as much in carbon emissions as 10,000 diesel-powered automobiles.

First Mode is designing and building a hydrogen fuel cell generator to do just that.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical process that generates electricity. The only byproduct is water vapor. Such fuel cells are used now to power forklifts and buses; Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are or will be in the market this year with hydrogen-powered automobiles.

There are two major differences between those fuel cells and what First Mode is doing. One is scale, Voorhees said. The haulers’ 2-megawatt generators are “a utility-grade power and utility problem that happens to be an off-road vehicle,” he said.

And the other is that it’s a retrofit project. To succeed, First Mode must fit the generator into the available space and “get it converted in a way that creates a good marriage between the existing platform and this new source of energy,” Voorhees said.

It’s a much different challenge for a bunch of space designers, he said.

“I’ve worked on designing vehicles for Mars and I think (mining) is worse,” he said. “The constraints are all different and the environment is not the same, but the approach is similar.”

The goal, he said, is to finish assembly of the generator in Seattle within the next few weeks, test it and then ship it to South Africa for installation and field testing starting in June. With field test results in hand, First Mode will then modify its design for follow-on haulers.

They’ll also start looking for other customers who could use large-scale, clean-power generators that need to move around, Voorhees said.

“The haul-truck application is not the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “If we can make it work in that environment, we can make it work anywhere, and there are a bunch of industrial applications that could benefit.”