To increase demand in the fuel cell industry, platinum-group metals producer Impala Platinum (Implats) aims to take its Springs, Gauteng, refinery off State-owned power utility Eskom’s grid and power the refinery using fuel cell technology, with commercial operation of its first phase aimed to start by mid 2019.
The project is at an advanced development stage, with fuel cell development company Doosan Fuel Cell America as the technology partner and an international special purpose vehicle syndicate, which is advised by financial adviser Fieldstone Africa.
Doosan has entered into exclusive discussions with Implats and energy solutions development company Pentaquark Energy to come on board as an experienced strategic partner.
Phase 1 of the project – comprising 20 Doosan fuel cells generating 8 MW of power – will be operational by mid 2019, with the long-term goal to generate 22 MW to 30 MW of power.
“The development of the 8 MW fuel cell [project] is an exciting development in Implats’ move towards a carbon-neutral fuel source at its refinery. “The technology uses combined heat and power to capture energy generation resulting in a significant reduction in costs over the 20 years,” enthuses Implats fuel cell coordinator Fahmida Smith.
The Springs-based refinery forms part of Implat’s Impala Fuel Cell Development Roadmap to fast-track local manufacturing of fuel cells and componentry within a proposed tributary special economic Zone (SEZ) in the Springs region.
The localisation strategy envisages partnerships with international manufacturers and, in time, the integration of local South African subcomponents.
The project is in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as the Gauteng Industrial Development Zone, and is supported by the Ekurhuleni metropolitan municipality as a long-term strategic investment to facilitate platinum beneficiation in South Africa.
“The Impala Roadmap represents the critical steps in support of the nascent fuel cell industry, specifically for the development of manufacturing capacity in South Africa, where the predominant supply of the critical platinum componentry is mined,” explains Smith.
She adds that, over the long term, Implats will maintain a strong emphasis on the deployment of fuel cell technology and energy efficiency projects.
Within this roadmap, specific strategies and actions are detailed to overcome the current barriers to commercialisation. These strategies and actions involve stimulating early-stage market demand through large-scale demonstration projects that showcase fuel cell technologies, as well as their economic viability, and validating product reliability and output in stationary and mobile applications.
Other barriers include improving product quality while reducing the total cost of ownership through demonstration projects that support cost and performance value propositions in an operating environment.
The roadmap will also focus on establishing a local supply chain and innovative approaches to secure capital requirements for nascent fuel cell deployment through government incentives and developmental partners, and leveraging current supporting infrastructure for fuel cell manufacturing and deployment alongside Impala’s current refinery operations.
This infrastructure, Smith notes, includes the availability of sufficient skilled personnel, codes and standards that allow for the safe integration and interconnectivity of fuel cell applications, a sophisticated security system, the availability of pure hydrogen gas and natural gas on site, as well as an operational hydrogen refueling station.She
further explains that key industrial demonstration projects will help to promote the uptake of fuel cell technologies globally and locally, as South Africa lags behind technology development, compared with countries such as the US, Japan and Europe.
Hydrogen EconomyA h
ydrogen economy refers to the vision of using hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source that can replace, for example, petrol as a transport fuel or natural gas/coal as a heating fuel.
Hydrogen is an attractive option, whether it is burned to produce heat or reacts with air in a fuel cell to produce electricity, the only by-product is water.
“The electrolysis of water can be used to generate renewable hydrogen, which can be stored as a compressed gas in an environment-friendly manner rather than storing energy in batteries,” Smith points out.
Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell during peak power demand periods, which will improve the stability of the grid, she adds.
Smith further explains that South Africa houses more than 80% of the world’s platinum reserves; therefore, a vibrant and sustainable hydrogen economy will also result in an increased demand for platinum.
“It is the flexibility that hydrogen offers that makes it so potentially useful within future low-carbon energy systems, as it can be produced from various resources and used in a range of applications, such as power generation, a transport fuel for low-carbon vehicles and for low carbon heating,” she notes.
Therefore, she adds that many experts regard hydrogen as a key enabler of the “lowest-cost, low-carbon energy system”.
Smith explains that fuel cells are capital intensive at the plant’s onset, but are following the same cost trajectory as solar power. Fuel cells’ benefits include being able to offer longer equipment operating times and providing the “much-needed” range extension which a sole battery system does not provide.
Smith further enthuses that a hybrid fuel cell battery-electric vehicle system will increase platinum demand in the long term.
“At this point, fuel cells do not contribute to large platinum offtakes as it is still a nascent industry. There is, however, an opportunity for fuel cells to increase the platinum demand in the medium- to long-term through stationary and niche mobile applications.”
She notes that South Africa has an opportunity to participate in fuel cell manufacturing within an SEZ, which should provide competitive advantage through established gas, road and rail infrastructure.
“The Springs refinery is close to the OR Tambo International Airport and surrounded by a large skills base. SEZ areas are relatively cheap and quick to establish for manufacturing and can potentially capitalise on synergies with the refineries.”
A sustainable manufacturing industry will require appropriate equipment demand, which, in turn, will support platinum demand, Smith states.