Categories
GeekWire

First Mode goes all in on clean energy for heavy industry

Seattle-based First Mode and Anglo American have closed a complicated $1.5 billion transaction that will remake First Mode as a clean-energy company for heavy industry — and shift its headquarters to London.

Anglo American, a global mining company, is now First Mode’s majority shareholder. The change of status was reflected in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reported a $1.184 billion equity offering sold to Anglo American. That’s in addition to a $200 million cash injection that Anglo American is providing, First Mode spokeswoman Colleen Rubart told me in an email.

Rubart said the balance of the $1.5 billion comes in the form of contributions of intellectual property, contracts, facilities and other assets from both of the parties involved in the deal. The deal closed on Jan. 5, she said.

The business combination, which was announced last year, blends First Mode’s engineering operation with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. First Mode created the hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa last year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

Going forward, First Mode will supply nuGen systems to Anglo American. The project will include the retrofit of about 400 ultra-class haul trucks with First Mode’s powerplant, plus the provision of infrastructure for hydrogen production, refueling and battery recharging.

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode’s zero-emission ambitions get a $200M boost

Seattle-based First Mode and the Anglo American mining company have signed a binding agreement to combine First Mode with Anglo American’s nuGen effort to develop a zero-emission system for hauling ore. The transaction, which is expected to close next month, values the newly combined business at around $1.5 billion and includes a $200 million equity injection from Anglo American.

The outlines of the business combination plan were first announced in June. At that time, Anglo American said the terms of the agreement were non-binding, and the financial details weren’t released.

First Mode is an engineering company that initially focused on providing expertise for space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But in recent years, it’s devoted increasing attention to carbon-reduction technologies for heavy industry.

The company provided the hydrogen-fueled hybrid power plant for Anglo American’s nuGen mining truck, which made its debut in South Africa this year as the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“First Mode was founded in 2018 with the goal of building the barely possible,” Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and CEO, said today in a news release. “We have done just that, and our mission is now to rapidly decarbonize heavy industry by dramatically reducing our customers’ greenhouse gas emissions. I can’t imagine a team better suited to this urgent challenge.”

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode sets up test site for zero-emission trucks

First Mode is establishing a proving grounds between Seattle and Portland to test and optimize giant zero-emission hauling trucks and the hydrogen-based infrastructure they’ll depend on.

The Seattle-based engineering venture says its leased facility at the TransAlta Centralia Mine, 85 miles south of Seattle, will include 7,500 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of outdoor yard space. “We plan to expand our footprint and activities in the future,” First Mode said in an emailed statement.

First Mode’s first job in Centralia will be to bring in a fleet of Komatsu 930E-4 ultra-class haul trucks and retrofit them with hybrid battery and hydrogen fuel cell power plants. Such conversions follow the model set in May, when the Anglo American mining company successfully deployed a proof-of-concept hybrid haul truck at its Mogalakwena mine in South Africa. First Mode developed the hybrid power plant for that truck, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle.

“The First Mode Proving Grounds in Centralia is a critical next step in our mission to help heavy industry eliminate diesel and transition to clean energy,” First Mode CEO Chris Voorhees said today in a news release. “The site will support both the optimization of ultra-class haul trucks and the full infrastructure associated with diesel-free mobility and the production and distribution of clean energy.”

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode enters second stage of clean energy quest

First Mode, a Seattle-based engineering company, says it’s agreed to a business combination with the zero-emission truck development effort led by the Anglo American mining company.

The deal follows up on First Mode’s work with Anglo American on its nuGen Zero Emissions Haulage Solution, which uses a hybrid hydrogen-battery powertrain on ore-hauling trucks. First Mode designed and built the powerplant in partnership with several other companies.

In May, Anglo American unveiled the first converted nuGen monster truck at its platinum mine in Mogalakwena, South Africa. The newly combined business, operating under the First Mode name, would convert Anglo American’s fleet of 400 trucks to the nuGen system. It would also provide associated site infrastructure for battery charging as well as hydrogen production and refueling. First Mode says converting 400 ultra-class haul trucks to zero-emission systems is equivalent to taking 280,000 carbon-emitting cars off the road.

“We started First Mode to solve meaningful and difficult problems,” Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said in a news release. “Climate change and energy security are the paramount challenges of our time, and I am so proud this will be First Mode’s focus as we enter this next phase of growth. Now is the right time, and this is the right team, to build the barely possible for this extraordinary set of problems.”

Categories
GeekWire

Mammoth zero-emission mining truck makes its debut

After years of development, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle was unveiled today at a South African platinum mine, with a hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant designed and built by Seattle-based First Mode.

Anglo American’s three-story-tall, 200-ton nuGen hybrid mining truck received a grand sendoff from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Mogalakwena open-pit platinum mine. “It is a smart step for Anglo American, but a giant leap for South Africa’s hydrogen economy as we move into the future,” Ramaphosa said. “The hydrogen economy is beckoning us as a country and as an industry.”

Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said zero-emission industrial power will play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis. Large trucks currently account for 70% to 80% of diesel fuel consumption at Anglo American’s mines, but one nuGen truck is expected to keep the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

“At First Mode, we know we are at a ‘fire-everything’ moment,” Voorhees said in a news release. “The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change. I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to effect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek.”

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode’s chief scientist spans the spectrum

Lots of tech startups have a chief executive officer and a chief technology officer, and some have a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer as well. But how many have a chief scientist?

First Mode, for one. The Seattle-based creative engineering company recently named its first chief scientist (and its first COO). Both were internal promotions, with co-founder Rhae Adams becoming chief operating officer and planetary scientist Elizabeth Frank becoming chief scientist.

Many of the projects First Mode has worked on over the three years of its existence have to do with planetary exploration. For example, the company’s engineers have provided support for NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February; and for the Psyche probe that’s due for launch to a metal-rich asteroid next year.

But other projects are much closer to home: First Mode is building a hydrogen-fueled power system for the massive trucks that Anglo American uses to haul ore out of its mines, and it’s designing a power module for the world’s first zero-emission race truck in Mexico’s Baja 1000 endurance race.

Those Earth-based engineering challenges represent a brave new world for Frank, who was part of the science team for NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury and came to the Seattle area in 2016 to work at Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company that fizzled out just as First Mode was forming.

First Mode has grown rapidly, despite the COVID pandemic. Two years ago, just before the virus took hold in the U.S., the company had 28 full-time employees. Today it has more than 150 employees, including more than two dozen at its Australian facility in Perth. First Mode is planning to add 170 more jobs in 2022.

Some of those jobs will be on the chief scientist’s team in Seattle. But Frank’s duties extend far beyond the Emerald City. She’s also the chair of the Commercial Advisory Board for NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, and the co-author of a white paper for the National Academy of Science’s decadal survey that delved into the role of commercial space ventures in planetary exploration.

“I would like to see NASA have smaller missions, so that it’s OK for some number of those missions to fail in a way that allows technology to move forward,” she said.

The way Frank sees it, failure should be more of an option.

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode gets $8.5M boost from mining partnership

Seattle-based First Mode says it’s partnering with the global mining company Anglo American in a multi-year joint development deal that includes an $8.5 million investment in First Mode.

The newly announced deal builds on the engineering company’s previous work on a hydrogen fuel-cell power plant for Anglo American’s monster ore-hauling truck.

Anglo American is one of the world’s largest mining companies, with a portfolio that includes platinum-group metals, copper and iron ore, and diamond mines. Its operations are spread out from South Africa to Western Australia.

Mining isn’t exactly an environmentally friendly industry, but Anglo American is pursuing an initiative called FutureSmart Mining that’s aimed at reducing its environmental footprint. The hydrogen-powered vehicle that First Mode is working on could become one of the largest zero-emissions vehicles on Earth.

First Mode was founded in 2018 by veterans of Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining venture that fizzled out. Much of First Mode’s work has to do with supporting space projects such as NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars and the Psyche mission to a metal-rich asteroid. But the partnership with Anglo American signals that First Mode is serious about addressing earthly engineering challenges as well.

Categories
GeekWire

How a goniometer gizmo will help Mars missions

The 3-foot-wide contraption that was built in First Mode’s Seattle workshop looks like something from a science-fiction movie, complete with spinning cogwheels and a flashing light beam — and it really does have an out-of-this-world purpose: helping scientists interpret readings from Mars.

Even the word that describes the gizmo has a sci-fi sound: “goniometer.”

Today, First Mode‘s engineering team delivered the 3-D goniometer to Western Washington University’s Mars Lab in Bellingham, Wash., where it’ll be used in connection with NASA’s Perseverance rover mission.

First Mode worked with Western to design the goniometer under the terms of a $302,000 contract from NASA, and it’s already picked up a suitably NASA-esque name. It’s known as the Western TANAGER, with an acronym that stands for “Three-Axis N-sample Automated Goniometer for Evaluating Reflectance.”

The name pays tribute to the Western Tanager, a bird that can be spotted in Washington and other Western states. “I tied it in by saying that with bird feathers, their color depends both on the pigment but also on the angle that you look at it,” First Mode systems engineer Kathleen Hoza told GeekWire.

Western’s new goniometer may look like something Buck Rogers would use in the 25th century, but such devices actually go back to the 16th century. Goniometers are designed to make precise measurements of angles, much like the protractors used in elementary school.

The Western TANAGER kicks things up a notch by measuring angles in three dimensions. Why is that important for Mars? Because knowing the precise angles of reflection for the sunlight that hits Martian rocks could help scientists unlock some of the Red Planet’s geological secrets.

Categories
GeekWire

How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called First Mode.

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Feb. 18, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on the traditional good-luck peanuts. “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to store up samples for eventual return to Earth, and the first to try flying a mini-helicopter over Mars.

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the Perseverance rover mission have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, a JPL veteran who’s now a senior systems engineer at First Mode, will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

Get the full story on GeekWire.