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Role of PGMs in creating hydrogen economy

2nd December 2022

By: Cameron Mackay

Creamer Media Senior Online Writer


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South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon economy is under way, and the country contains the world’s largest reserves of the platinum-group metals (PGMs) essential to this transition.

The demand for PGMs will increase as they are critical to the realisation of a hydrogen economy, which is one of the gateways towards global net zero targets, states independent think tank Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) researcher Dr Nqobile Xaba.

“This is an opportune time to investigate how best to leverage this mineral endowment for economic development underpinning the transition to a low carbon economy. With this in mind, field experts gathered in October at Mistra’s PGMs Roundtable to discuss this question, and to explore opportunities within the PGMs sector for a just transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable society,” explains Xaba.

Speakers from various institutions, including Mintek, the Department of Science and Innovation, Sasol, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, pooled their insights on this theme.

They explored how South Africa’s PGMs beneficiation can support the emerging low-carbon economy, the implementation of the Hydrogen Society Road Map (HSRM); green hydrogen export opportunities for South Africa, South Africa’s hydrogen commercialisation strategy, and the South African PGMs industry roadmap.

The experts that gathered for the roundtable highlighted that the ultimate challenge for achieving a hydrogen economy is producing cost-competitive green hydrogen in large quantities.

Hydrogen technologies will not be fully implemented until green hydrogen can be produced at competitive prices, Xaba stresses.

“There are encouraging signs in this regard: renewable energy is needed to produce green hydrogen, and the cost of renewables is already beginning to fall. However, it will be important to accelerate procurement of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and to develop infrastructure for these technologies to lower their cost. In addition, the infrastructure for hydrogen storage and distribution must also be developed if green hydrogen is to be competitively priced.”

She states that South Africa has developed the HSRM to support the establishment of the hydrogen economy. This is based on government’s strategies and policy direction for bringing together stakeholders and institutions around a common vision and programme for how to use hydrogen and hydrogen-related technologies to promote economic development and greening objectives.

As South Africa moves to implement the strategies in the HSRM, it has the potential to become an important participant and scientific thought leader in the emerging global hydrogen system.

However, Sasol ESG and sustainability group stakeholder relations head Dr Stanley Semelane cautioned that South Africa will need to accelerate the pace of development of its hydrogen economy to derive benefits when it comes to the export of green hydrogen products, as South Africa will be competing for the same markets with other Southern African countries.

A consistent supply of critical metals is needed to produce green energy, sustainable transport, and storage technologies to achieve the goal of a net climate-neutral energy system by 2050, stresses Xaba.

Energy transition measures currently focus on support and affordability, while overlooking the availability of materials, which is critical.

Mintek Mining, Materials and Automation group executive Dr Jones Papo emphasised that the partnerships between Mintek and PGM producers has ensured access to the PGMs needed for catalyst production.

Papo further argued that without access to these PGMs, South Africa will not be able to derive commercial value from PGMs beneficiation. Current policies on both the renewable-energy transition and the circular economy do not adequately factor in the availability of materials.

Xaba states that South Africa should ensure that it retains its competitiveness in the PGMs sector globally for its economic sustenance and for its low-carbon transition strategies. This can be done through the creation of a thriving hydrogen economy, as mechanisms to achieve this already exist in South Africa, but need to be further “reinforced”.

“Firstly, PGMs beneficiation through catalyst development for fuel cell and electrolyser applications will ensure that mineral value addition occurs in South Africa . . . secondly, support from industry and the private sector is critical. “It will enable South Africa’s research and development efforts to be channelled towards product commercialisation – which is often challenging in the country’s system of innovation.”

Xaba points out that IDC industry planning and project development head Rian Coetzee conveyed that the IDC will play a leadership role on the commercialisation side. This will ensure that South Africa has a clear commercialisation plan to balance long-term strategic planning and the shorter-term opportunities.

Thirdly, Xaba highlights that government must create an enabling environment for a thriving hydrogen economy. This includes implementing necessary policies.

South Africa has made progress on this front with the approval of the Presidential Climate Commission’s framework for a just transition in South Africa, and with the HSRM.

“Both documents set out steps for implementation. South Africa's mineral beneficiation strategy also provides a framework that seeks to leverage the mineral endowments to support the overall competitiveness of the economy, and promotes the green- or low-carbon economy.

“The strategies contained in the South African PGMs industry roadmap and South Africa’s hydrogen commercialisation strategy are being drafted to support the hydrogen economy.”

Xaba emphasises that the creation of an enabling environment must include funding support for research and development, and skills development programmes to ensure that there will be a capable workforce for the hydrogen economy.

These initiatives need to be rolled to support service delivery meaningfully, and to encourage public awareness of, and engagement with, the new technologies, she adds.

“Arching over all these requirements should be a strong partnership between government, research institutions, the private sector and civil society, as argued by all the speakers at the Mistra PGMs roundtable . . . such partnerships are critical in ensuring that projects succeed and a common vision is maintained,” concludes Xaba.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor



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