Cape Town - Hydrogen-powered laptops, fridges, cars and even planes are steadily becoming a reality. They have been labelled as “society-changing” by Toyota which has invested millions in research and manufacturing to roll out the first fleet of vehicles with the innovative fuel cells under the hood.
And now, South Africa will be part of the revolution after Airbus announced that it would partner with HySA, a local fuel-cell developer.
The research could see fuel cells developed for use on commercial airliners, even powering the entire plane.
“This is a turning point,” said the SA company’s systems director Professor Bruno Pollet.
He was speaking at the lofty testing centre, part of the SA Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry building, on the University of the Western Cape campus.
Bare pipes hug the walls, lights blink inside mini-terminals and shiny examples of the centre’s research are displayed on wide desks.
For the past five years, funded primarily by the Department for Science and Technology, HySA has soldiered on, researching novel ways to utilise hydrogen fuel cells.
Some of its successes are scattered around the centre, from a hybrid scooter to a handheld torch.
“The power of hydrogen fuel cells is they have zero harmful emissions and make absolutely no noise,” said Pollet.
The fuel cells can run forever provided they have a constant stream of hydrogen and oxygen.
The oxygen can be filtered from the air, and the hydrogen is usually pumped into the cell from an accompanying tank, and this is the catch.
The first fuel cell had its roots in the 1800s, but it is only now that scientists and engineers are making progress in the way power is generated in the cells and how the hydrogen is contained.
Airbus senior manager for Emerging Technologies and Concepts Dale King said the idea of a quiet and environmentally friendly power unit was an enticing concept to his company which was committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 75 percent by 2050.
Pollet said HySA was not looking to take on the big companies such as Toyota which could devote 200 experts to the development of a single cell. This project was all about “making a mark”.
“We are perfectly suited to start manufacturing hydrogen fuel cells for other countries.”
The fuel cell’s reaction is catalysed by platinum. South Africa is the world’s number one provider of the metal.
“We have everything we need right here. In many ways we are to fuel cells what the Arabs are to oil, we have a chance to really capitalise on this new wave of technology,” said Pollet.
The R500 000 pumped into HySA’s research through the partnership will not only expand on the research and development done so far, but will hopefully also create scientists ready to spearhead the local hydrogen fuel-cell industry, he said.