7 min read / April 21, 2023 / Staff writer
Across the U.S., the shift toward electric vehicles (EVs) has already begun. From automobiles to heavy equipment, society is taking steps toward electrification to reduce carbon emissions and create a more sustainable future.
When it comes to passenger vehicles, the last few years have seen new laws and legislation promoting the use and production of electric vehicles (EVs). These include the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that invests billions in electric vehicle (EVs) charging infrastructure and California’s Advanced Clean Cars II , which requires that by 2035, all new cars and light trucks sold in the state be emissions free.
The transition toward electrification impacts the construction industry in multiple ways. One is that construction teams and equipment will be responsible for figuring out how to build the infrastructure required for an EV-centered society.
“While electrification is at the forefront of everyone's mind due to automotive, our equipment on the construction site is often creating that infrastructure for electric automobiles,” remarked Andrew Earing, Director of Tracked Products and Service at Komatsu.
When you're creating the infrastructure, it's simply not there to begin with,” Earing continued. “There are challenges. We have solutions to those challenges that we are exploring, but it's not going to be a one-size-fit-all type solution for the various applications and sizes of the products we provide.”
While cars are in the spotlight now, regulations around heavy equipment and construction job site emissions will likely increase in time. Creating a sustainable future has always been important to Komatsu, so, to stay ahead of the trends and true to its brand values, the company has been investing more and more in hybrid and electric machines.
The electric advantage
Komatsu recently showcased a PC210E electric excavator and a fully electric compact wheel loader prototype at Bauma 2022, an international trade fair, in Munich, Germany.
“To achieve our CO2 emission reduction targets from products in use of 50% by 2030 from 2010 levels, to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2050, we are looking for promising technologies from suppliers to accelerate our electric machine development,” said Seiichi Fuchita, Chief Technology Officer and President of the Development Division at Komatsu.
“Industries, including construction, are trending in the direction of carbon neutrality,” added Earing. “We want to be a leader. We are a technology leader when it comes to construction and mining equipment. We feel that electrification is one viable option in the construction space.”
With the PC210E, Komatsu created an electric excavator from a popular size class.
“We wanted to introduce the 20-ton size class because it opens us up to a lot of different operating applications and environments,” explained Earing. “It's a very diverse size class size, and we want to gain a better understanding of the applications in it and how they work with electrification.”
In 2023, the PC210E will begin to see real work on the job site.
“In North America, we are conducting a pilot program in which we will work with our customers to jointly pilot our product and sustainable charging solutions into their applications. In doing this, we aim to better understand the benefits and true applications to ultimately meet their needs,” said Earing.
Meanwhile, the electric wheel loader prototype, which was created in collaboration with Moog, is currently undergoing further tests to enhance the machine. Expected enhancements include an increased operating cycle, added assist function and a more comfortable environment for its operator. The prototype also has sensors to add automation capabilities.
There are key advantages to fully electric machines, like the PC210E and electric wheel loader. Compared to its combustion predecessors, electric machinery provides two immediate advantages: better air quality and noise reduction.
“A zero-emissions machine gives equipment the flexibility to operate indoors without harming the air quality around it,” Earing explained. “It can operate in areas where it might not have been able to before and for longer durations. When you have a traditional emissions vehicle operating indoors, air quality has to be monitored, and sometimes, the machine must be shut down for extended periods of time to let emissions dissipate.”
Earing continued, “Another application is in urban environments, such as congested downtown areas. The reason for that is not only due to exhaust emissions, but also due to sound emissions.”
Metropolitan and urban worksites are often accompanied with restrictions for when a contractor can work — in part to reduce noise pollution for the populace.
“Electrified machines have near zero sound emissions,” noted Earing, “which can enable an extended operating window for contractors and ultimately, the end customer.”
Bridging the gap
While combustion engines will remain crucial to the development of electric infrastructure, hybrid machinery that’s available now can help the transition between 100% combustion and 100% electric machinery.
Komatsu released its first hybrid excavator in 2008 and its most recent model, the HB365LC-3, entered the market in 2017.
“The HB365LC-3 offers increased fuel efficiency without sacrificing power, so the overall performance is outstanding. A topper on the cake is the added benefit of reduced emissions that lowers your carbon footprint and promotes sustainability,” said Kurt Moncini, Senior Product Manager at Komatsu. “Based on EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) CO2 formula, the hybrid potentially offers an up to 20% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the standard PC360LC-11.”
The force behind the excavator’s fuel savings is its electric swing motor, which offers a glimpse into the capabilities of future electric excavators. The electric swing motor captures and regenerates energy as the upper structure slows down and converts it to electric energy.
Moncini explained, “It’s using energy that would normally be wasted and makes it available to do work, contributing to increased efficiency and decreased diesel usage.”
The energy captured during each swing braking cycle is stored in the HB365LC-3’s ultracapacitor. Each time the excavator swings, the capacitor discharges electric power to the electric swing motor.
“A traditional battery requires time for the chemical process that releases electricity to occur,” stated Moncini. “The heavy work nature of construction equipment places a much faster demand on power transfer. The ultracapacitor’s ability to store and discharge energy quickly makes it ideal.”
He added, “When it comes to the boom arm and bucket, the capacitor drives the swing, and all available engine horsepower can go into the hydraulic system. This creates faster cycle time and a very quick, responsive swing.”
In addition to powering the swing motor, the ultracapacitor sends electric energy to the engine via the motor-generator. This energy is used to accelerate the engine from an ultra-low idle speed of 700 revolutions per minute (rpm) and improve hydraulic response.
It is this technology that can be applied to future electric excavator models to extend battery life and increase power.
“Komatsu has the technology to not only capture, but also supply energy into an electric swing motor, which gives the HB365LC-3 up to an additional 70 horsepower that it can use for efficiency or even additional performance needs, depending on the customer's application,” said Earing. “The current PC210E does not have this technology in it, but we do have plans to introduce the hybrid energy recovery into the 210E here as we move forward.”
Steps toward carbon neutrality
From fully electric machinery to hybrids, electrification is at the forefront of the push toward carbon neutrality in construction, but it is just a part of what the construction industry sees as a solution to meeting carbon goals.
“We're not just exploring electrification, but we're also exploring other technologies that are out there – such as hydrogen fuel cells and clean fuels,” said Earing. “We're looking at all of these options because we're making sure that we have the right solution for the right job site and customer application, and of course electrification is one of those developments.”
Earing concluded, “In the future, I would say that the trends that we see in carbon neutral machines will depend on the machine application plus size and weight. With different sizes, there's going to be different technologies that suit those machines.”
Learn more about Komatsu’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop sustainable solutions.