As the world races to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, there is a move towards fuel cell technology, which is finding favour across a range of applications. Photo: Jason Boud
As the world races to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, there is a move towards fuel cell technology, which is finding favour across a range of applications. Photo: Jason Boud

Hydrogen and fuel cell technology holds opportunity for SA

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 9, 2021

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By Mkhulu Mathe

AS THE world races to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, there is a move towards fuel cell technology, which is finding favour across a range of applications.

South Africa, a signatory to the Paris agreement on climate change, is part of the growing drive towards clean energy solutions for electrical energy and transportation systems. Apart from reducing carbon emissions, other key drivers are the provision of power to remote rural communities and to use the country’s rich source of high-grade platinum.

At Pretoria’s 1 Military Hospital, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) unveiled c systems as a primary power source for a Covid-19 field hospital.

In Durban, Chem SA, a subsidiary of Taiwanese conglomerate Chung-Hsin Electric and Machinery Manufacturing, opened a multimillion-rand commercial fuel cell production factory at the Dube TradePort Special Economic Zone . It will manufacture the latest generation of fuel cell products for backup and continuous (off-grid) telecom power solutions.

In July last year, the European Commission issued a communique indicating its support for hydrogen fuel technology by kick-starting the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance as part of its New Industrial Strategy. The alliance will play a crucial role in facilitating and implementing the strategy and supporting investments to scale up production and demand for renewable and low-carbon hydrogen.

Other recent international developments are a leading vehicle manufacturer testing fuel-cell trucks; Norway, Denmark and South Korea are using portable fuel cells to power houses, nursing homes and community centres; and Japan and Australia signing a co-operation agreement on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

South Africa’s fuel cell activities date back to the mid-2000s with the start of Hydrogen South Africa (HySA), an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology, now the Department of Science and Innovation.

The overall goal of HySA is to develop and guide innovation along the value chain of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies in South Africa, to create wealth, jobs and intellectual property (IP) rights by initiating high-technology industries based on minerals found in South Africa, particularly platinum group metals.

HySA’s phases include phase one, which is aimed at skills development; phase two the establishment of a portfolio of IP; and the third phase, the creation of local industry.

To date, HySA has garnered several South African patents and two Dutch patents. Several local and international patents pending. HySA has worked in conjunction with local universities, the science councils and Eskom on some of these.

Local mining houses have taken an interest in the use of fuel cell technology for powering vehicles and underground ventilation.

A fuel cell works like a battery without needing recharging. The fuel or electrolyte applied is used in the classification of fuel cells. This classification determines the kind of electrochemical reactions that take place in the cell, the type of catalysts required, the temperature range in which the cell operates, the fuel required, and other factors.

Thus we have a Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC), a Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell (PAFC), and a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell.

Reports suggest that the emphasis on renewable sources of energy such as solar PV and wind energy, have the potential to create instabilities in electricity supply systems because their supply is variable. Therefore, they require backup generating capacity. Furthermore, they require a substantial investment in infrastructure.

On the other hand, the use of distributed generation solutions (localised or on-site power generation) such as fuel cell or a hybrid solar PV-fuel cell technology, improve power quality and efficiency.

In the short term, the end-user is projected to drive the growth and advances in the fuel cell technology market.

The mobile application use of fuel cell vehicles is projected to increase significantly. The installation of hydrogen refuelling stations will further drive the market in line with regional priorities.

Fuel cells are not without their challenges. The cost of the catalyst and its inverse correlation to the number of units produced is one. Typical fuel cells such as the DMFC, PAFC and PEM, rely on PGMs for enhancing the reaction rate. For South Africa, the development of fuel cell technology is an opportunity to beneficiate its platinum reserves in addition to its exports.

The cost of the catalyst used in a fuel cell makes up nearly 26 percent of the total price when 1000 systems are produced a year. However, when the number of systems produced increases to 500 000 a year, the catalyst cost rises to nearly 41 percent of the fuel cell total price. Unless a method of using less catalyst without compromising the efficiency of the fuel cell is found, the catalyst cost is projected to be an inhibitor to the growth of the fuel cell market beyond moderate production.

The use of hydrogen as a fuel has several disadvantages mainly related to its safety in transportation and storage. This concern has seen the adoption of codes and standards for using hydrogen as a fuel in vehicles, as well as in portable and stationary applications.

The completion of the Chem SA fuel cell factory, at Dube TradePort, along with other related activities around the country, signals a diversification of clean energy solutions with the stationary applications market being the ideal driver of fuel cell uptake. Fuel cells are perfect as a backup to ensure critical power supply to institutions hospitals, clinics for refrigeration of vaccines and other medications, telecoms and more - are uninterrupted.

What South Africa lacks is policy certainty that will drive the growth of fuel cell technology. The initial intention of the government with the establishment of HySA was not only for the country to be an early adopter of the technology, but also to position it as an exporter of value-added technologies that include PGMs.

With the risk of load shedding and the increasing demand for alternative energy supply, the government now has the opportunity to develop policies that will set targets to drive the growth and advancement of fuel cells locally, with tremendous potential opportunities in fuel cell driven vehicles. These include the manufacture of appropriate flask-type cylinders to hold the electrolyser, the manufacture of fuel tanks possibly using 3D printing, and the production of competitive hydrogen.

Mkhulu Mathe (PhD) Analytical Electrochemistry, University of Georgia, Athens, GA

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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