How is Africa faring in the BEV race? Part 2

2022-08-01T08:16:21+00:00 August 1st, 2022|Technology|

By Sharyn Macnamara

The move to BEV (Battery Electric Vehicles) in mining is happening the world over at a rapid pace, and Africa is no different. The latest technology brings with it core benefits to mines with a drive to NET zero, and African innovation and technology holds its own in this space.

Following Part 1 in our series on this topic, African Mining spoke to two MEMSA member OEMs ­– Fermel (Pty) Ltd and Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd – about their journey in the BEV race in Africa. These two companies, like many MEMSA members, have over the years, proved that African OEMs can compete with their global counterparts on all levels. The companies share their experience of current trends in the industry, a few of their product offerings and some of the challenges and opportunities in BEV development in Africa.

South African OEMs hold their own

Corné Wehr, engineering manager at Fermel (Pty) Ltd. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd

Corné Wehr, engineering manager at Fermel (Pty) Ltd. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd

Corné Wehr, engineering manager at Fermel, explains that the company established  itself around 50 years ago in the coal sector and then moved into the platinum industry predominantly as a supplier of hard rock equipment for both low- and high-profile mining. Today the company services African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Sierra Leone, to name a few, and is also expanding its global footprint to India, South America and Europe. “The company’s dedicated, in-house Engineering Department is mandated to develop battery electric systems for our complete product offering. We are structured to ensure we have the appropriate skill set and systems in place to optimise our ability to integrate the latest technologies seamlessly to ensure optimum reliability and efficiencies. Our ability to utilise years of product development and experience, along with safety and system integration, provides for a perfect platform to introduce battery electric drive systems offering our clients the ability to improve their long-term sustainability targets,” says Wehr. He explains that Fermel’s BEV journey started back in 2010 with an unprecedented 25t Multi-wheeled Hauler design developed for a narrow tabular platinum mining environment. He says, “Utilising LiFePo battery chemistries – incorporating individual wheel drive and steering system – created a point of departure for the development of an all-encompassing Battery Electric product offering.”

Wehr adds, “When introducing technology to the market, one must consider key strategic partnerships with the end-user. Our initial offer to implement BE technology to existing internal combustion trackless equipment, through the installation of retrofittable solutions, allowed us to test and verify these systems with our clients. The strategic execution of products offered several years ago, has enabled Fermel’s adoption of BEVs with limited risk.”  Wehr provided an example where the initial retrofit solution on PCs (Personnel Carriers) included three revisions of the LiFePo battery pack incrementally increasing the range, thus improving the duty cycle of the first conversions. He continues, “Our NEWGEN 18-Seater Personnel carrier includes improved ergonomics of the personnel cabin thanks to the flexibility and placement which is achieved by a much smaller driveline envelope.”

Wehr mentions another example of the progress made in the company’s development, being the latest E-Liberator utility vehicle with an 8t payload capacity. He says, “Our duty cycle and tractive effort required an entirely new scope to ensure an improvement to the already reliable and robust Liberator diesel offering. Introduction of HV (high voltage) architecture with an improved battery energy density was needed to achieve these performance requirements.”

A further consideration touched on by Wehr is the level of safety requirement when utilising batteries in an underground environment. He says, “Considering that both battery systems and cell compliance are of utmost importance to ensure the highest level of safety, the DMRE (Department of Mineral Resources and Energy) is aware of possible hazardous systems introduced by the OEM and expects comprehensive data packs with safety adherence. Further changes to vehicle compliance will also be introduced – SANS 1589 is currently being amended from 1994 to the 2022 standard. This references the brake compliance testing of trackless mining equipment, which will now make allowance for the introduction of BEVs which utilise retardation by applying regenerative braking whereby the motor harvests energy by converting vehicle inertia to electric current to slow down the vehicle. This additional energy will be utilised to supplement the battery system.”

Marnus Marais, engineering manager at Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd. Image credit: Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd

Marnus Marais, engineering manager at Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd. Image credit: Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd

Marnus Marais, engineering manager at Battery Electric, a power electronics company, notes that the company has been involved in the electric vehicle market for over thirty years – for as long as the EV industry has been in existence in South Africa.

“We supply controllers and auxiliary safety equipment for locomotives for underground mining, and these are specifically for battery powered electric locomotives. Our products offer our clients control of the physical drive instruction and power to the motors in this equipment. Through the years we have upgraded our interface products and safety offerings to a point where we now provide controls to drive the locomotives and offer proximity detection (PDS) to detect other locomotives and personnel in a set range of the locomotive. Our products can make decisions or advise the operator that there is a threat close by and the system will act and shut down the equipment as a safety precaution.”

He adds, “We have the full technical expertise in the field to support the equipment with engineering support at our head office. We equip the entire, personnel and all vehicles to create an all-encompassing PDS system to improve the safety of the entire environment. We have just developed a system that allows for tagging, beacons, and controllers in an area with no infrastructure – to detect when a locomotive must stop to prevent impact with personnel – bringing safety to those areas too for Sibanye-Stillwater.

Drive Train. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

Drive Train. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

“We currently offer an ICON 1 & 3 controller to enable the functionality of controlling the locomotive – using battery power, controlling that power to the motor(s) together with what we call the Maxus X PDS system, which includes safety features, data logging and driver access control/management. We also offer state-of-the-art inverters, motors, and controllers for a new generation of locomotives.”

While this is the company’s historical offering, Battery Electric has added to its portfolio with the mining sector’s current focus on reducing carbon emissions and the carbon tax that is going to come into play. The company is also therefore focussing on the trend of diesel conversions in the EV space. He says, “We replace the diesel components and some hydraulic components, depending on the system, with a fully electric system. This has included development in two areas for the company – the building of new EV machines end-to-end, as well as retrofitting existing systems.

E-Liberator Flat Bed. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

E-Liberator Flat Bed. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

Battery Electric recently successfully converted a 5t diesel hydraulic underground mining locomotive to a full EV for Sibanye-Stillwater. The company removed the diesel engine, diesel tank, hydraulic pump and motor, and the previous drive system from the ore-hauler. A lithium-ion battery with a full electric drive system was installed, and the conversion included a three-phase inverter, a reduction gear box allowing for maximum torque and the electric motor, human-machine interface, driver speed control unit, high frequency, onboard charger, radiator, cooling pump and the battery electric vehicle controller. Marais highlights that, “Tests conducted on surface have proved the machine can do what its 5t diesel counterpart can do, at 50% of its power capacity.” At the time of writing, the locomotive was being tested underground.

E-Liberator Lube Truck. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

E-Liberator Lube Truck. Image credit: Fermel (Pty) Ltd.

Marais adds that the new generation of locomotive allows for regenerative braking, enabling a more efficient motor and more efficient batteries. He explains, “So, the size of the components become smaller, the size of the battery becomes smaller, and the overall efficiency and performance and maintenance improves. With the newer motors, the motor becomes a generator on deceleration. Momentum turns the motor, and the motor generates power, which allows power to flow back into the battery. Although we do have a mechanical brake system on the locomotive that comes into play at some point, the main brake function is done electrically. One does not lose power in heat or in disc brakes, that power instead gets pushed back into the battery and for that brief period battery recharge takes place.”

The company is also working on a more recent project in collaboration with a local partner, Bird Machines – a designer, manufacturer and service provider for a wide range of trackless underground mining machines in the industry, adds Marais. “The project involves the building of an electric version of a personnel carrier, which is in final proof of concept, and this will be our first trackless vehicle.”

Trends and benefits

Marais points out that there are huge financial benefits to converting locomotives from diesel to electric technology – instead of replacing the entire fleet, the existing chassis on each vehicle can be repurposed. There are also no diesel or oil components, and maintenance costs are therefore reduced. Over and above this, there is only a little upskilling required when it comes to operation of the machinery, as the company strives to emulate the diesel locomotive operating area as far as possible in its electric conversions.

Wehr points out that battery technology – when considered in the long run ­– is classified as a gap technology and the future of hydrogen will possibly be the next frontier when considering sustainable technology. He adds, “Hydrogen is receiving increased attention within the South African mining context and will remain on our radar for the foreseeable future. Batteries, however, will contribute extensively towards a more cost-effective operating cycle and to a much safer environment in underground mining.”

He also highlights that the DMRE’s amendment of Schedule 2 Act 5 of 2006 Electricity Regulation Act increased the threshold for embedded generation projects from 1MW to 100MW without the need of a license, enabling mines to generate electricity from possible renewable sources. He emphasises, “The potential benefit when utilising a zero-carbon source to power BEVs is extensive.”

Wehr continues, “Purely by removing the ICE (internal combustion engine) from the underground environment, one eliminates hazardous gasses like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, benzene and soot, and this immediately creates a heathier environment as well as removes a considerable heat source.”


Battery Electric conversion project loco graphics. Image credit: Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd

Battery Electric conversion project loco graphics. Image credit: Battery Electric (Pty) Ltd

Further, he notes, “The electrical drive motor Fermel utilises in our BEVs is 95-98% efficient. Compare this to an ICE, which is only 30-35% efficient – this means 65-70% of the available energy is converted to heat. The advantage of electric is the opportunity for our clients to start re-evaluating ventilation and to benefit from a possible saving on ventilation costs. Conservative figures indicate that 40% of mine energy costs are spent on ventilation.

Wehr points out that additional benefits within the health and safety space are related to operators’ exposure when operating these vehicles. Occupational hygienists require an evaluation of the dB (decibel) or noise exposure as well as the WBV (Whole Body Vibration), which impact the operator’s ability to work for extended hours under extreme conditions. BEVs offer considerable improvements to both requirements due to the reduced number of moving parts.

He provides further insights to the long-term benefits when considering the ROI (Return on investment) when investing in the Fermel BEV Fleet offering. He elaborates, “Our calculations, when considering electrical tariffs for charging versus direct fuel cost, indicate that the average ROI is 3,5 years. This might reduce even further when considering the current fuel price. The long-term benefit will become more evident when comparing charging versus fuel cost.”

Marais adds, “Although the initial cost is greater on an EV the overall efficiency of the machine is improved as there are less parts to the machine, and this increases productivity as less parts break and less maintenance is required over time, increasing life span.” In his opinion, EVs also offer better safety controls, as electric vehicle response times are quicker in an emergency.

The Challenges: Battery life

Wehr explains that battery management is critical to attain expected life of battery – each battery will provide an expected number of discharges used to determine the life or operating hours of the battery. He continues, “An essential part of this is the ability of the battery’s BMS (Battery Management System) to regulate each cell’s voltage and ensure equal discharge and charge rates through the pack.

He notes, “When considering options for fast charging one must ensure that the BMS is able to allow for the high input current ensuring stability of all the cells through the pack.”

Wehr adds, “The C-Rating is a cell classification used to provide the ability for a cell to charge or discharge – the higher this C-rating, the greater the ability for a battery to be charged or discharged. Fast charging needs to be considered based on the safe operating parameters provided by the manufacturer. Should charging not be implemented correctly, this can significantly reduce the life of the battery.”

Another contributor to ensuring the optimal life of battery is ensuring the cell temperatures remain as close as possible to the optimum temperature. He explains, “Some chemistries are far more forgiving than others when considering optimal delta temperatures allowed.” Wehr mentions that a key aspect of the vehicle design is ensuring that both the battery and electrical drive systems maintain at the optimal range. Both the battery and the electrical drive system will revert to a safe mode limiting the output of the battery or drive system which directly affects the vehicle performance. He says, “Evaluation of the duty cycle as well as heat rejection is critical to ensure vehicle performance and availability is not affected.”

The Challenges: Skills

Wehr highlights the challenge faced with regards to product field support, stressing, “Fermel has identified key skill-sets which are dedicated for effective maintenance. The ongoing development plus improvement to the training and supporting documentation is critical in ensuring the transfer of knowledge within our technical training facility. Also, on-the-job training and practical exposure is essential, allowing the technician’s confidence level to increase.”

Marais notes that. in his experience, the workforce has been particularly open to BEV technology and that the younger generation seems to be very interested in technology advancements in their environment and are eager and able to move over to more automated elements at a fast pace. However, he points out that adopting new technologies at operational level in a mine is not a simple or quick implementation process, there are a number of stakeholders that are required to make a project successful. Regulatory bodies such as the DMRE, the Unions and all stakeholders at mine level across disciplines – all of these entities – must be engaged, and they have to be part of the innovation and know the benefits the technology will offer.

The Challenges: Component shortages

Marais highlights component shortages in the value chain of late – silicone, MOSFETs, LEDs, connectors – as being a major threat to the progress being made in the local BEV industry. He says, “Because we are predominantly a power electronic manufacturing company, we’ve been faced with longer lead times, but we mitigated the risk with good, advanced planning and we had to adapt certain products.”


Despite these challenges, Wehr comments that there are huge opportunities taking place in the industry currently. “The big mining companies dealing with international markets are confronted with ‘green bonds,’ which score companies on their level of efficiencies and how environmentally friendly their operations are. The grading is calculated on the quality of kilojoules (a joule is a derived unit of energy) utilised to produce a ton of material. The electricity bill is added to the fuel consumed and this is converted to joules to gauge how much energy has been consumed to produce one ton of material hoisted.”

Mining companies are therefore implementing measures to reduce the kilojoules associated with tons hoisted and BEVs are considered one of these means to reduce joules using renewable energy on surface to offset that value. “For example, Sibanye-Stillwater is looking at a 200MW PV plant, Mogalakwena is looking at 100MWs/month, Goldfields – 40MW, Vedanta – 30MW, Harmony – 30MW, Orion – 38MW.1  The new regulation has allowed for this, and this has added considerable speed to the BEV race. The next step for Fermel is therefore to take the learnings gathered through the creation of the E-Liberator to drive our innovation to a battery electric LHD 6-tonner and 8­-tonner for low-profile mining operations,” he says.

“Fermel considers its BEV strategy as a catalyst in supporting industry leaders in the mining sector to drive toward a more sustainable future.  We encourage mining sector leaders to participate and join the collaborative effort towards aligning their enterprises behind the common responsible narrative.”

Marais concludes by highlighting that the mining sector is particularly interested in adapting new technologies, even if they emerge in other sectors of the industry, to enable better efficiencies in their operations, particularly on the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) front.  “Budgets have increased substantially on the safety front. Machine intelligence, in particular, is a focal point. The fact that the technology we are developing can reduce the mining carbon foot and impact our environment in a positive way, making work safer too, is an amazing opportunity. Digitalisation is assisting in this regard, and the more we understand machine intelligence and apply this too to our BEVs, the more we will be able to increase efficiencies, while reducing emissions, and use it for the good of all stakeholders.”


Labuschagne, H. (2020). South African mines could generate their own electricity before the end of 2020. Mybroadband.