With there being a global increase in demand for all fuel cells, with low temperature platinum bearing fuel cells seeing the largest increase in market pull, independent analysis and advisory firm 4th Energy Wave CEO Dr Kerry-Ann Adamson believes that this creates an increasing opportunity for the local platinum mining industry.
“South Africa can play many roles in the emerging fuel cell sector, both in manufacturing and recycling of key components as well as creating a local adoption market. The country already has world class examples, including HyPlat, the first South Africa fuel cell membrane electrode assembly (MEA) company to develop and use indigenous technology.”
Also, with platinum group metals producer Impala Platinum’s announcing an 8 MW fuel cell project earlier this year, Adamson says this will rapidly promote the skills set to further develop this industry in South Africa.
Meanwhile, she says that later this month, 4th Energy Wave will publish the tenth edition of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Annual Review, which shows that the fuel cells industry is now at a tipping point, where the silo barriers between the energy and transport sectors are being broken down.
“We are seeing fundamental shifts in the roles of utilities, car and transport providers. They are facing huge disruption as the markets are moving to last mile travelled mobility options, and we see the rise of the prosumer,” she adds, explaining that prosumers are consumers which now also produce electricity.
This model, supported by opening up market access, including feed in tariffs, increasingly promotes the ability of consumers - be they residential home owners, businesses, factories - to take control of their energy profile. This model, whilst nascent in South Africa, is now common place in Europe and North America.
Although there are several metatrends at play that impact on demand for fuel cells, the basics of needing to reduce cost, increase durability and fundamentally increase product availability remain important, adds Adamson.
We are now at the point though, she explains, that adoption is being based on market need, albeit with the understanding that cost is not the only issue. For example, in the oil and gas industry, direct-methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) are being implemented to provide power for areas in Russia and the high Arctic in Canada that are subjected to extremely cold weather, as other technology options do not work in these conditions.
“Therefore, there is direct value added from using the DMFCs, and the adoption decision is simply not based on upfront cost”.
In the automotive industry, platinum-free catalyst fuel cells have been an attractive concept for a long time, notes Adamson. However, if the desired outcome is one of durability, and a more efficient, fuel cell system run-time, then platinum is still the best functional catalyst, she points out.
“Overall, we are seeing increasing political will to push the cleantech sector, in general, into the mainstream, as pollution and air quality is a political hot potato in many countries.”
These trends and demands for the increasing availability of fuel cells, as well as their improved economics, are leading to increased adoption in the industry.
“The fuel cell industry is increasingly vibrant, selling to more than 40 different markets, each with its own needs and economic pain points. South Africa has the potential to play an increasing role in this.”
In addition, she enthuses that two of the most “exciting” sectors that are forecasting developments in the short-term period, are transportation, specifically trains, and shipping.
These sectors are considering fuel cell technology, owing to their need to reduce pollution, and both require new and very specific technology solutions, Adamson adds.
In heavy duty transport, such as buses, trucks, trains and boats, Adamson explains that fuel cells often provide extra value additions. “Whether this is the avoided cost of overhead electrification, which is needed to electrify local trains, or the extra torque which is needed for heavy trucks, we are now much more capable of understanding value add and customer needs.”
This drive for a solution is in itself a product of twenty years of hard work, she notes, and has put the entire fuel cells industry in a position where the industry should be able to leverage this position for sector growth.
“As platinum-based fuel cells are very much a part of this growth, we will see an increased demand for platinum,” she concludes.