As a means of promoting beneficiation, South African Chamber of Mines (CoM) administration head Jeannette Hofsajer says the platinum-based fuel cell installed at its offices is just the start in a potentially vast surge in demand for fuel cell units, which would positively impact on the platinum mining industry.
In a fuel cell, chemical energy is converted from a fuel into electricity through an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, without undergoing an energy conversion process through fuel combustion, she explains.
Hofsajer explains that the CoM embarked on this fuel cell project to demonstrate the potential new market for local fabrication and the industrial use of platinum, as well as to gain local experience with fuel cell plants by acting as an industry leader on fuel cell deployments to influence the development of an African fuel cell market.
“The fuel cell enables the CoM to operate during power interruptions and negates the need for the chamber’s building to have a conventional fuel generator, thereby contributing to resolving the country’s power challenges,” she avers, adding that the CoM’s project is used as a marketing vehicle to promote the use of and stimulate public interest in fuel cells.
Hofsajer notes that the fuel cell unit proves that they are a “viable, cost-effective solution to power requirements” and can create jobs through the implementation and servicing of the technology by providing opportunities to monitor and evaluate fuel cell technology.
However, Hofsajer notes that the fuel cell industry is “on the verge of radical change”, owing to nanotechnology.
Joint research by scientists at Denmark-based University of Technology and Sweden-based Chalmers University of Technology has shown that nanotechnology can reduce the need for fuel cells’ platinum loadings by as much as 70% by sputtering an alloy of platinum and the rare-earth metal yttrium in nanometre thicknesses onto a nanotube substrate.
“Although this technology seems to imply less need for platinum in this field, it is worth recalling what happened to the demand for platinum as auto catalysts started using progressively less platinum. Overall, platinum demand soared as auto catalyst prices fell,” Hofsajer explains.
In addition, she notes that, with new technologies such as replaceable power packs, being developed by the US military, the applicability of fuel cells for domestic household use is not just a pipe dream.
“A charged fuel cell pack can weigh less than your conventional liquid petroleum gas canister and can be as readily available. And using them as they improve means that users are not locked into what can become outmoded technologies.”
While it might, at first glance, appear to be counterintuitive, Hofsajer says the use of fuel cells to replace petrol and diesel power is facing consumer resistance.
“Unlike conventional liquid fuels, with their well-established supply networks, there are few places where the hydrogen-based fuels used by the cells can be conveniently obtained. However, judging from latest developments in the technology, convenience is less than relevant in stationary power applications or in applications where the silence of fuel cells offers clear advantages.”
This consumer resistance becomes more apparent when referring to mobile fuel cells as used in vehicles, owing to the lack of refuelling points and infrastructure to refuel mobile operations. Hofsajer says resistance can also be attributed to the potential South African consumer not being aware of fuel cell technology.
The CoM enthuses that fuel cells offer significant advantages over conventional motors and all-electric vehicles powered by batteries that provide “clean” power, but that force vehicles to stand idle while their batteries are being recharged.
Fuel cells, Hofsajer notes, have a higher efficiency than diesel or gas engines and can operate silently, compared with internal combustion engines.
“They are, therefore, ideally suited for use within buildings,” she adds, noting that, when hydrogen comes from the electrolysis of water which is driven by renewable energy, the use of fuel cells eliminates greenhouse-gas emissions over the whole cycle while eliminating pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
Hofsajer further explains that fuel cells do not need conventional fuels, such as oil or gas, and can, therefore, reduce the economic dependence on oil-producing countries, creating greater energy security for the user nation.