JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – More vehicle manufacturers are acknowledging that platinum-catalysed hydrogen fuel cells are the sole route to 100% carbon-free driving.
But platinum’s own catalytic prowess is in danger of being under-acknowledged.
To stop this, collective South African effort is needed to spotlight the metal's deftness and the major role it can play in the fight against climate change.
Where hydrogen goes, platinum should automatically follow, but this may fail to be upheld if platinum’s trumpet is not blown far louder.
Needing to be dispelled is the notion that platinum has security-of-supply issues because of it has to be sourced from South Africa, which is seen to be a country from which supply dependence should be avoided and one which suffers from high built-in cost.
It would be an extremely good idea for platinum-linked labour unions to form part of global roadshows to counteract this notion and to tell the story of platinum’s unrivalled adroitness in catalysing clean-as-a-whistle electrical power for cars, trucks, buses, trains, trams and ships.
The great deftness that platinum can contribute should be smartly marketed in the context of the global battle to beat climate change.
Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen into protons and electrons, break oxygen bonds and eventually form water. The oxygen reduction reaction, according to PhysOrg, requires an especially large quantity of platinum, which has prompted scientists to look for ways of reducing the platinum content in oxygen reduction catalysts.
While it is widely acknowledged that platinum offers unrivalled activity and stability for the electrochemical reaction that takes place and is “renowned in the fuel cell community for its effectiveness in converting hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity”, its so-called rarity, exacerbated by perceived South Africa risk, is stimulating scientists to search for fuel cell catalysts that either do not use platinum or use as little of it as possible.
Last year, the publication Science reported that research from no less than the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory had identified a new catalyst that uses only about a quarter as much platinum as current technology by maximising the effectiveness of the available platinum, which at least keeps platinum in contention.
But the plan is to eliminate platinum altogether, which is why collective South African effort is needed to spotlight the proven efficacy of platinum and reduce the emphasis that is being placed on perceived South African supply risk and the sudden upward push this supply uncertainty can place on the metal’s price.
South Africa niche in autocatalysis proves the value of the metal as one that keeps the air of the big cities clean. But as the world moves away from diesel-fuelled vehicles, the potential follow-on hydrogen fuel cell market needs to be nurtured.
South African platinum mining companies must optimise their custodianship of what is a national patrimony by having the fortitude to partner with labour and government to guarantee supply security.
Several key vehicle manufacturers are already outspokenly shouting from the rooftops that renewable-energy-backed hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are the only way to guarantee transport that is totally free of carbon. At the one end, the world is moving fast towards providing clean energy from the sun and the wind, but on the other, the move towards the widespread provision of hydrogen infrastructure and the extensive introduction of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles needs to be accelerated.
Earlier this month, South Korean automaker Hyundai gave strong support to hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, with the Indian publication Livemint quoting Hyundai research head Albert Biermann as stating that the all-battery electric vehicle would “only be an interim solution”.
“The final solution will probably be hydrogen,” Livemint quoted former BMW luminary Biermann as saying. This would be so especially in the case of big commercial buses. “We’re now pushing hydrogen a lot,” Biermann added.
Hyundai, which has so far built 7 000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, sees mobility shifting away from private car buyers to fleet and ride-hailing service providers.
Aside from Hyundai, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle announcements are being made regularly, with motor companies such as Toyota and Honda investing in them for some time.
In addition, American Honda VP Steven Center recently enthused about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles “making their own electricity”, which is key, and spoke not of “if” but of “when” hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would become mainstream.
In the heavy-duty truck market, Toyota and Kenworth are putting a hydrogen fuel cell truck through its paces at the Port of Los Angeles in the US. In this regard, the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association of the US last month reported that ten hydrogen fuel cell trucks would be deployed to haul cargo at the port, as part of a zero-emission and near-zero-emission freight facilities project. Petroleum giant Shell will be providing the infrastructure in the form of two new hydrogen filling stations.
The Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association also reported that zero-emission hydrogen engine company Plug Power had delivered fuel cell electric cargo tuggers to the international airport in Albany for use by FedEx and that the New York-listed Bloom Energy had installed a 3.5 MW fuel cell power installation for life sciences company Agilent Technologies, in California.
Infrastructure development is crucial, mirrored by Sacramento in the US opening the fortieth retail hydrogen filling station to serve 6 500 fuel cell vehicles.
On May 9, Hyundai signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with South Korea's Gangwon province to apply hydrogen fuel cell systems to 5 t fishing boats. According to the publication Business Korea, Hyundai will develop a stack module for ocean-going ships by the end of 2022, improve the performance of its fuel cell systems by 2025 and apply the technology to large ships after 2030.
In February, Air Liquide, Hyundai, NEL, Nikola Motor, Shell and Toyota signed an MoU for hydrogen fuelling components to test hydrogen fuelling hardware for fuel cell electric trucks. "The goal is to enable interoperability so that any hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle can fuel at our hydrogen stations and we can fill at any of theirs," Nikola VP Jesse Schneider was quoted as saying.
Diversified mining company Anglo American said in April that it hoped to have a truck running on hydrogen and technical director Tony O’Neill spoke of the company’s installed diesel fleet one day being replaced by an electrical alternative.
South Africa has the great advantage of superior sun and prime wind, which can be used to produce the hydrogen to fuel mining equipment, in deference to the global imperative to mitigate climate change. A graphic displayed during Anglo American's presentation showed solar panels providing electricity for hydrogen used by haul trucks, highlighting the delivery of enduring value through the transformational use of renewable energy.
Certainly, Anglo American Platinum, which is studying a 75 MW to 100 MW solar project at its Mogalakwena platinum mine in Limpopo, could lead the way by using clean energy to electrify mine vehicles driven by platinum-catalysed hydrogen fuel cells.
On the rail front, a study earlier this month revealed notable new marketing potential for fuel cells and hydrogen technologies in the rail environment, with Europe leading the way.
With Africa Rail taking place on June 19 and 20 at the Sandton Convention Centre, some of the latest rail solutions will be showcased and it would be great for South Africa to consider including input on fuel cells and hydrogen technologies in the rail environment to keep abreast of global trends.
Even sooner, the International Heavy Haul Association will be hosting a conference in Narvik, Norway, from June 10 to 14.