Komatsu, the world's second largest manufacturer of construction and mining equipment after Caterpillar, has set into motion a plan to field its first hydrogen-powered heavy-duty mining trucks by 2023.

Japan's largest maker of construction equipment will start its hydrogen development program this year. Komatsu's push into hydrogen responds to customer demand for heavy equipment with much lower carbon dioxide emissions than the heavily polluting diesel-fed units now in use worldwide.

Hydrogen is a zero carbon fuel burned with oxygen that can power internal combustion engines among other uses.

Mining equipment accounts for some 40% of Komatsu's sales. Given mining's importance, Komatsu needs to match competitors Caterpillar and China's Sany Heavy Industry, the world's third-largest heavy equipment manufacturer, in the push towards low pollution mining vehicles.

These industry majors seek to slash carbon dioxide emissions across their operations by eliminating fossil fuel use. Komatsu has set a target of halving its CO2 emissions from its construction and mining equipment during its 2030 financial year compared to its 2010 financial year.

One of Komatsu's 930E diesel/AC electric powertrain ultra-class haul trucks is already being re-engineered to run on hydrogen power at Anglo American Platinum's Mogalakwena Mine in South Africa. The Mogalakwena Mine is the world's largest open pit platinum mine and accounts for some 40% of total world production of this precious metal.

This Komatsu 930E with a 291 ton payload will be converted into a hydrogen hauler powered by hydrogen fuel cells and lithium batteries. It's set to be tested for the first time in the second half of the year.

Komatsu recognizes that transitioning to hydrogen fuel cell haulers presents immense technical challenges. The development process is bound to be hugely expensive.

To shave costs, Komatsu plans to buy the fuel cells for its future hydrogen-powered trucks from outside suppliers. Mass production, however, is expected to significantly cut their prices if used in a wider range of applications.

Komatsu is also looking into developing battery-powered heavy haulers. It's partnered with a U.S. maker of commercial electric vehicles (EVs) to produce heavy machinery run by lithium-ion batteries. Komatsu plans to begin mass production as early as 2023.