The 1st of April 2022 saw the implementation of the ban on red diesel in the construction industry, something that will have a major impact on many construction firms in the UK. However, as the UK moves towards reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the total ban on using diesel construction vehicles, such as diggers, will be on the horizon.
What we know so far is that sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned in 2030, sales of new hybrid cars and smaller petrol and diesel commercial vehicles will be banned from 2035, and then there will be a ban on all large commercial vehicles from 2040.
Although it isn’t too clear whether the 2040 ban will include construction equipment, it is highly likely that a ban will affect construction equipment on or around that date.
So, with this in mind, what are the real alternatives to using diesel powered diggers and dumpers etc? Here, we will put forward 3 alternatives that have been developed and what the pros and cons are of each.
Electric Diggers – Can They Work
You may or may not be aware, but electric diggers already exist and they are used quite regularly. JCB produces electric construction equipment ranging from a 1.9 tonne mini digger all the way up to a 20 tonne excavator, Volvo has a 2.5 tonne excavator and Kubota makes a 2.7 tonne tracked excavator, just to give you a few examples. But how practical are they?
Electric diggers work really well. Not only are they able to do the job that diesel powered diggers can, they are also absolutely silent when running. Noise pollution on major construction jobs can be an issue and electric construction equipment goes a long way to helping solve that problem.
The problem with using battery electric construction equipment on major projects comes down to charging. Firstly, there is an issue where equipment is used for up to 20 hours a day in shifts. This doesn’t give much time to actually put any charge into the vehicle. Secondly, a lot of new build jobs take place a long way from plug sockets. Finding a source to charge the machines is problematic.
Battery electric diggers have a place in the business, but they are more suited to smaller jobs that don’t require extensive use in socket barren lands. They are also probably the safest of all the alternatives options as well.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Diggers
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is becoming more and more popular, even though it is many years behind battery electric technology in terms of development and infrastructure. In a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the vehicle has a tank that is filled with hydrogen. This hydrogen is then passed through a cell which combines the hydrogen with oxygen to create a reaction to power the vehicle.
The pros for this technology is that it is easier to move the hydrogen in storage to a site in order to fill the diggers and other construction equipment on demand. This means that the machines can be operational 24/7 if they are needed to. The hydrogen fuel cell technology is also very good for the environment. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen it creates water. This is the only by-product that you see.
The cons of hydrogen fuel cells are twofold. Firstly, hydrogen fuel cells do not like dust. They do not like dust at all! This will obviously be an issue when working on a site where the whole place is filled with dust particles.
Secondly, hydrogen is extremely flammable. There is a very good reason why the hydrogen bomb is feared more than the petrol bomb. If there is an explosion it could be catastrophic.
All in all, the fuel cell is again unsuitable really for the big construction works and is suited more for smaller projects where there is less risk of particle contamination.
Hydrogen Combustion Engine Diggers
This is a technology that JCB are heavily investing in and it is also the most likely alternative to diesel that we will see on the construction sites.
The hydrogen combustion engine works in a very similar way to the diesel version. Hydrogen is pumped into a tank in the vehicle and then it is passed through a combustion engine.
The engines have to be designed to burn the fuel at lower temperatures on a hydrogen combustion vehicle. The reason for this is because hydrogen burned at too high a temperature creates NOx, or nitrogen oxide to put it in layman’s terms. NOx is itself a pollutant and would be counterproductive to the purposes of using hydrogen fuel.
The key advantages of the hydrogen combustion engine are that, firstly, they are not susceptible to dust contamination like hydrogen fuel cells are, they produce green energy with only water steam as a byproduct, they are cheaper to run than a diesel. And, as with fuel cells, you can easily transport the fuel to the construction site. JCB already has hydrogen tank machines for this purpose.
Of course, there are also some cons to this technology. As with hydrogen fuel cells, storing large amounts of hydrogen can be dangerous and would need to be kept secure by many on-site safety precautions.
What Else in the Future?
There is a lot to mull over with the three options that are currently available or are already in production. But will there be any other safer alternatives available in the near future?
Solar power could be an option much further down the line. At present the technology of solar power is not advanced enough and it cannot capture and store enough energy for vehicles. However, as with any green technology, there is a lot of research and development going into the future of solar power. A synthetic compound called perovskite structure, based on the molecular makeup of the natural perovskite mineral, has been found to be able to absorb vastly more of the sun’s energy and it can absorb it in solar cells that are vastly smaller than current solar cells.
Although the solar option is developing at an exciting pace it is unlikely that we will see the fruits of those labours within the next 10 years or so. Solar development would obviously be a much safer alternative to combustible fuels on a construction site, that much is for certain.
But what are the cons?
However, as with anything, there are the cons. Solar power will rely on the sun. The hotter and clearer the sun is, the more power the solar panels can pick up. The UK is not well known for being a sunny destination all year round. Only time will tell if future solar technology can obtain enough solar energy in more overcast conditions to make them viable for construction vehicles.
Another issue that may be brought up is that the panels on a digger would possibly get caked in dust and dirt which will surely affect the solar panels. This is true, however, panel cleaning technology is possible for the vehicles. We already see on cars that there are washers positioned in order to specifically clean the numerous cameras. Why not use this technology on solar panels?
The future of construction will definitely see changes to how we fuel our diggers, excavators, dumpers and other big plant. The decisions on what type of alternative fuels you use will have to be considered based largely on the type of work you do and where you do it. Hopefully the transition will be smooth once you have considered what you need to suit your jobs.
Need machines in the not too distant future?
Although we only stock used construction machinery that is powered by diesel, we have some excellent deals currently available. As our stock list is populated by plant equipment previously used by our sister companies, H.E. SERVICES (Plant Hire) Ltd and Diggerland Theme Parks, it will depend on how soon they both switch to using alternative powered machinery.
If you’re looking to buy any of the following, then get in touch with our sales team today:
- Excavators (Mini, Midi, Tracked, Long Reach, Wheeled)
- Ride on Rollers
- Dumper Trucks
- Backhoe Loaders