Hydrogen fuel cells in South Africa

The large scale application of hydrogen fuel cells can ultimately replace combustion type power generation, reduce greenhouse gasses, and provide South Africa with a sustainable supply of energy.

The first step of this vision was taken when Impala Refining Services launched a prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station.

The prototype is a collaborative effort between the Department of Science and Technology through the HySA Systems Centre of Competence based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Impala Platinum (Implats) through its Impala Refineries in Springs.

Over the past three years Implats has provided HySA Systems with funds of R6-million to enable the prototype development.

Implats plans to use hydrogen fuel cell technology as its main source of energy for material handling and underground mining equipment.

A fuel cell is a chemical device operating at various temperatures, up to 1000°C and transforms chemical energy of a fuel such as hydrogen, methanol, and natural gas and an oxidant (air or oxygen) in the presence of a catalyst such as platinum into electricity, heat and water with low to zero emissions.

“As the world’s largest platinum-supplying region there is a guaranteed supply of the metal as well as the potential of an increase in global platinum demand. The development and implementation of this technology provides an important opportunity for South Africa to play a role in reducing global greenhouse emissions, thus diminishing urban pollutants and contributing to reduced health care costs and an improved quality of life,” said Implats CEO Terence Goodlace.

“Our involvement in this project signifies Implats’ commitment to deploying the nascent fuel cell industry in South Africa in support of the platinum industry.”

With Implats becoming a partner to the UWC’s South African Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry (SAIAMC) the university has achieved a long term goal of entering strategic research, development and innovation partnership with an absolute leader in one of the pillars of energy generation.

Speaking at the event, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, said that that the Department of Science and Technology has established research programmes based at various universities, focusing on solar and wind energy as well as on biofuels, so that we can use locally developed technologies to harness these resources.

South Africa spends close to R1-billion on energy R&D each year, amounting to over 4% of the gross expenditure on research and development.

However, it is in the area of hydrogen and fuel cell development that some of the most pioneering work is happening. It’s potentially the clean fuel of the future.

Fuel cells are currently mainly used for primary and backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings and in remote or inaccessible areas, as well as in specialised transportation applications, such as forklifts.

“We can see the promising beginnings of a shift towards a future hydrogen economy. A number of car manufacturers have announced plans to start producing hydrogen-operated vehicles. South Africa’s telecommunications industry is already replacing its diesel generators, using hydrogen fuel cells for back-up power. Most hydrogen fuel cells use catalysts made of platinum group metals. South Africa has more than 75% of the world’s known platinum group metal reserves. This advantage, together with the very capable researchers at our centres of competence, places us in a strong position to seize the opportunities offered by a future hydrogen-based economy”, the minister said.

While the fuel cell market is still in its infancy in South Africa, recent developments indicate a growing appetite for the technology. In order to promote further deployment of hydrogen fuel cell technologies, especially in the lucrative automotive sector, public private partnerships are required to put in place the requisite infrastructure.

In this regard, the alignment of fuel cell initiatives across government is critical to stimulate private sector funding that is necessary to create a viable hydrogen and fuel cell technologies industry cluster.

Goodlace said that Implats was seriously looking at large scale application of hydrogen fuel cell technology which, within the next few years, should generate enough energy to take the refinery of the grid, becoming self-sustained and carbon neutral.

Source: EE Publishers

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Hydrogen fuel cells in South Africa