South Africa po­si­tions it­self to go green us­ing plat­inum group met­als

The HySA pro­gramme is de­vel­op­ing glob­ally rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies

Mail & Guardian - - Dst -

Hy­dro­gen and fuel cell tech­nolo­gies (HFCT) have re­ceived con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion in South Africa from a min­eral ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion per­spec­tive. Plat­inum group met­als (PGMs) are the key cat­alytic ma­te­ri­als used in most fuel cells and, with more than 75% of the world’s known plat­inum re­serves lo­cated in South Africa, there is great po­ten­tial for so­cioe­co­nomic ad­van­tages from ben­e­fi­ci­at­ing the coun­try’s PGM re­sources.

The Cabi­net-ap­proved Na­tional Hy­dro­gen and Fuel Cell Tech­nolo­gies Re­search, De­vel­op­ment and In­no­va­tion Strat­egy (HySA strat­egy) is at the core of fuel cell tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment in South Africa. The strat­egy is in­tended to stim­u­late and guide in­no­va­tion along the HFCT value chain, po­si­tion­ing the coun­try to sup­ply high-value-added prod­ucts to both the do­mes­tic and international mar­kets.

The three cen­tres of com­pe­tence es­tab­lished by the de­part­ment of science and tech­nol­ogy (DST) to im­ple­ment the HySA strat­egy have made con­sid­er­able progress in de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy, hu­man cap­i­tal, and knowl­edge prod­ucts such as publi­ca­tions and patents. The cen­tres have also formed strate­gic part­ner­ships with end users in the de­ploy­ment of tech­nol­ogy prod­ucts. The part­ner­ships pro­vide a plat­form for tech­nol­ogy test­ing and val­i­da­tion, in line with the sec­ond five-year phase (2014/15 to 2018/19) of the HySA pro­gramme. Tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion is crit­i­cal in the process of trans­lat­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment out­comes from the lab­o­ra­tory into so­cially ben­e­fi­cial prod­ucts and ser­vices, and in cre­at­ing early mar­kets.

Re­cently, a number of tech­nolo­gies in the HySA port­fo­lio have gained promi­nence at a global level. Re­new­able hy­dro­gen pro­duc­tion from wa­ter through elec­trol­y­sis, metal hy­dride hy­dro­gen stor­age ma­te­rial, and liq­uid or­ganic hy­dro­gen car­ri­ers are po­ten­tial game-chang­ers in the area of hy­dro­gen pro­duc­tion, stor­age and dis­tri­bu­tion. This is a clear in­di­ca­tion that the HySA pro­gramme is de­vel­op­ing glob­ally rel­e­vant tech­nolo­gies.

The use of re­new­able hy­dro­gen and fuel cell tech­nol­ogy to pro­duce elec­tric­ity has been demon­strated at Poe­lano Sec­ondary School in Eva­ton. The 2.5kW HySA-de­vel­oped fuel cell sys­tem, with re­new­able hy­dro­gen pro­duc­tion and stor­age on site, was launched by Min­is­ter of Science and Tech­nol­ogy Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane on April 13 2018, and is now a re­li­able source of power for the ru­ral school. It is es­ti­mated that more 5 000 schools and clin­ics across the coun­try have lit­tle or no ac­cess to re­li­able elec­tric­ity. The 2.5kW fuel cell sys­tem will be ca­pa­ble pow­er­ing class­room lights and some com­put­ers in ru­ral schools.

It should be noted that the mod­u­lar na­ture of fuel cells makes it pos­si­ble to com­bine sim­i­lar units, with min­i­mum changes to the bal­ance of the plant, to make 5kW, 7.5kW or larger sys­tems, as re­quired. Given that many such fa­cil­i­ties are lo­cated more than 20km from the Eskom grid, and that in­stalling the re­quired trans­mis­sion in­fras­truc­ture to some of these ar­eas would be ex­tremely costly, dis­trib­uted gen­er­a­tion is the most fea­si­ble way to pro­vide power to many com­mu­ni­ties.

Glob­ally, wind and so­lar pho­to­voltaic en­ergy are be­ing used to power megawatt elec­trol­y­sers to pro­duce hy­dro­gen as a vi­able way of de­car­bon­is­ing sec­tors, us­ing hy­dro­gen as an in­put chem­i­cal. The Hy­dro­gen Coun­cil, a global ini­tia­tive of lead­ing en­ergy, trans­port and in­dus­try com­pa­nies that see hy­dro­gen as a key so­lu­tion in tran­si­tion­ing to a low-car­bon, sus­tain­able econ­omy, en­vis­ages that by 2050 hy­dro­gen will be able to con­vert and store hun­dreds of ter­awatt hours of so­lar and wind power. This will en­able the de­ploy­ment of green en­ergy that might oth­er­wise be lost, and al­low international dis­tri­bu­tion from re­gions where re­new­able re­sources are abun­dant to re­gions that need to im­port en­ergy. Given its abun­dant re­new­able re­sources and the suc­cess of the Re­new­able En­ergy In­de­pen­dent Power Pro­ducer Pro­cure­ment Pro­gramme, South Africa could po­si­tion it­self to be a sig­nif­i­cant ex­porter of re­new­able hy­dro­gen.

The 2015 Paris Agree­ment by the Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties to the 1992 United Na­tions Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change brought to the fore the role that hy­dro­gen and fuel cell tech­nolo­gies could play in the de­car­bon­i­sa­tion of the en­ergy and trans­port sec­tors in or­der to limit global warm­ing. If the world’s tem­per­a­ture is not to ex­ceed the agreed two-de­gree in­crease, en­ergy-re­lated car­bon diox­ide emis­sions will have to be re­duced dras­ti­cally (by 60% in 2050). The Hy­dro­gen Coun­cil es­ti­mates that in 2050, hy­dro­gen could power 25% of pas­sen­ger ships and 20% of lo­co­mo­tives on non-elec­tri­fied tracks, in ad­di­tion to pow­er­ing about 400 mil­lion cars, 15 to 20 mil­lion trucks and five mil­lion buses.

For this to be achieved, there will need to be sig­nif­i­cant tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in hy­dro­gen pro­duc­tion, stor­age and dis­tri­bu­tion. Hy­dro­gen stor­age poses chal­lenges to re­searchers ow­ing to the size of the mol­e­cule. Sig­nif­i­cant quan­ti­ties of hy­dro­gen gas can be put in a con­tainer at high pres­sures or cryo­genic tem­per­a­tures in liq­uid form, but these are en­ergy-in­ten­sive pro­cesses. Solid-state hy­dro­gen stor­age us­ing metal hy­drides or hy­dro­gen-ab­sorb­ing ma­te­ri­als has ben­e­fits in ap­pli­ca­tions where weight is not an is­sue. A col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the HySA Sys­tems cen­tre of com­pe­tence at the Univer­sity of the Western Cape and Im­pala Plat­inum has demon­strated that metal hy­dride hy­dro­gen stor­age can en­able a fuel-cell-pow­ered fork­lift to op­er­ate at a pres­sure 150 bars lower than con­ven­tional sys­tems. How­ever, the need for re­duced weight, and the chal­lenges re­lated to us­ing high­pres­sure hy­dro­gen un­der­ground, has min­ing com­pa­nies look­ing at al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of trans­port­ing hy­dro­gen.

HySA In­fras­truc­ture, at North-West Univer­sity in Potchef­stroom, is pur­su­ing the use of liq­uid or­ganic hy­dro­gen car­ri­ers (LOHC) as a safe way of us­ing hy­dro­gen in un­der­ground min­ing equipment. Un­der ap­pro­pri­ate con­di­tions, the car­ri­ers ab­sorb hy­dro­gen, al­low it to be trans­ported in liq­uid form at room tem­per­a­ture, and re­lease it at the point of use. In a re­cent an­nounce­ment, An­glo Amer­i­can Plat­inum (Am­plats) chief ex­ec­u­tive Chris Grif­fith in­di­cated that a fuel cell dozer that runs on hy­dro­gen us­ing the LOHC tech­nol­ogy is ex­pected in 2019. Such tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to re­duce the cost as­so­ci­ated with ex­tract­ing diesel fumes from un­der­ground. Fur­ther­more, LOHC tech­nol­ogy could play a lead­ing role in the re­new­able hy­dro­gen ex­port mar­ket.

Sig­nif­i­cant progress has also been made in ap­pli­ca­tions where hy­dro­gen com­pres­sion is still a re­quire­ment. Elec­tro­chem­i­cal hy­dro­gen com­pres­sion, with no mov­ing parts, is more ef­fi­cient and cleaner than con­ven­tional me­chan­i­cal com­pres­sion. HySA In­fras­truc­ture has been at the fore­front of de­vel­op­ing this tech­nol­ogy, both for com­pres­sion and hy­dro­gen sepa­ra­tion from mixof tures with other gases. In April 2018, Am­plats en­tered into a strate­gic partnership on elec­tro­chem­i­cal hy­dro­gen com­pres­sion and pu­rifi­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy with Shell Tech­nol­ogy Ven­tures BV and the Nether­lands-based HyET Hy­dro­gen. The part­ners believe that the tech­nol­ogy can re­duce costs and in­crease the re­li­a­bil­ity of the pro­duc­tion and stor­age of high-pres­sure hy­dro­gen, which could lead to the wider de­ploy­ment of pub­lic hy­dro­gen re­fu­elling sta­tions for au­to­mo­tive ap­pli­ca­tions.

Through the HySA pro­gramme, know-how and ca­pa­bil­i­ties in game-chang­ing tech­nolo­gies have been ac­quired and de­vel­oped so that South Africa can be a sig­nif­i­cant player in the HFCT sec­tor. How­ever, there is still plenty of scope for fur­ther in­no­va­tion to de­velop bet­ter per­form­ing ma­te­ri­als in the form of PGM-based cat­a­lysts for fuel cells and elec­trol­y­sers and LOHC tech­nol­ogy, in line with the coun­try’s ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion strat­egy. This is the do­main of HySA Catal­y­sis, based at the Univer­sity of Cape Town and Min­tek in Rand­burg.

The shift towards a less car­bon-in­ten­sive en­ergy mix is not unique to South Africa, but is a global phe­nom­e­non that South Africa has to ac­cept and in­no­vate towards in or­der to re­main glob­ally competitive. The coun­try is for­tu­nate to have the re­sources (both re­new­able and min­eral) that are the es­sen­tial com­po­nents of these low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies, and gov­ern­ment’s fore­sight in es­tab­lish­ing the HySA pro­gramme should be ap­plauded.

Through the HySA pro­gramme, knowhow and ca­pa­bil­i­ties in game-chang­ing tech­nolo­gies have been ac­quired and de­vel­oped so that South Africa can be a sig­nif­i­cant player in the HFCT sec­tor

Min­is­ter of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, Mamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane view­ing the demon­stra­tion by Hysa In­fras­truc­ture Hy­dro­gen South Africa at the launch of the Hy­dro­gen Fuel Cell Tech­nol­ogy sys­tem at Poe­lano High School in Ven­ters­dorp, North West. Photo: Bruce...

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