Fuel cells mimic solar’s cost trajectory

20th September 2019 By: Martin Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

Fuel cell technology is following the same trajectory as solar. The cost of solar was high when it was initially introduced, but economies of scale eventually brought its price down to highly competitive levels.

“That’s exactly what we see happening with fuel cells,” says Impala Platinum (Implats) market development manager Fahmida Smith.

Speaking to Mining Weekly for this special fuel cells feature, Smith was upbeat about where fuel cell technology is heading, driven particularly by developments in China, Japan, Europe and California, and linked inextricably to the use of platinum-group metals (PGMs) within the hydrogen economy that is emerging worldwide.

In South Africa, Smith is prominent among those who are playing key roles in overseeing the local pilot development of fuel cell technology and the hydrogen age.

This is evidenced by the showpiece fuel cell-powered forklift truck that is functioning successfully at the Implats Refinery, in Springs, as well as coming within a hair’s breadth of establishing an economically viable stationary fuel cell power plant at the same complex, which has its own hydrogen feed.

Still an intense promoter of PGM-using fuel cell development, the JSE-listed Implats has proved its mettle by donating 16 ha of land adjoining the refinery to the Gauteng Industrial Development Zone (IDZ), a provincial initiative that has the local manufacture of fuel cells and fuel cell components as its focal point.

The Gauteng IDZ is an extension of the OR Tambo Special Economic Zone (SEZ), where investors will be incentivised to grasp the local manufacturing nettle across the full length of the hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen electrolyser value chain.

These days, electrolyser development is taking place in tandem with fuel cell development to provide the clean and ‘green’ hydrogen that the climate-change consciousness is demanding across the globe.

While the Gauteng IDZ is responsible for investor attraction, Implats has committed itself to being an enabler of investment as the SEZ progresses.

Fuel cell technology is tailor-made for mobilising transport of the heavier variety like buses, trucks, trains and ships in an emission-free manner. Also, stationary fuel cells are already considered a potentially viable alternative to off-grid rural electrification.

In the meantime, some mining companies are themselves taking steps to use fuel cell technology to power their transport equipment on surface and underground in an emission-free manner.

An important requirement in all this is access to hydrogen and once again Implats is able to talk from its own company experience in setting up an economically viable refuelling station.

“With our hydrogen refuelling station, we’ve already seen immediate cost benefit. We are privileged in the sense that we have a hydrogen pipeline that comes through to our site and we are leveraging the current cost of that pipeline.

“Without taking the fuel into account, and just taking into account the refuelling infrastructure installed, it cost us a lot less than you would have to pay to put in hydrogen infrastructure anywhere else,” Smith outlined to Mining Weekly.

The company spent under R2-million for its refuelling infrastructure, with special metal hydride technology facilitating the capacity to provide hydrogen at low pressure.

The metal hydride technology allows hydrogen to be stored on board the forklift truck at a much lower pressure than it would be stored in other vehicles and is also in the compression technology within the refuelling station itself to facilitate refuelling.

The metal hydride technology takes the hydrogen to around 50 bar and then pressurises it up to 200 bar using steam, “which is how we refuel”, Smith points out.

Other Developmental Thrusts

Outside the Implats’ refinery context, HySA Infrastructure, a creation of South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation, has for some time been advancing liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) technology, which many are advocating as a means of lowering storage cost and enhancing safety.

LOHC technology is based on catalytic hydrogenation and dehydrogenation processes that facilitate storage, transportation and the production of hydrogen.

HySA Infrastructure has been successfully operating a solar-to-hydrogen system in South Africa since 2013, which is what the world is demanding as it provides ‘green’ hydrogen from the outset. South Africans have the opportunity to generate carbon-free electricity at a cost potentially cheaper than when Eskom burns coal and pollutes the air by making use of this country’s superior sunlight and prime wind. Putting that clean electricity through water in an electrolyser generates hydrogen, helped by PGMs.

On the local manufacture of fuel cell components, some companies are eyeing local membrane electrode assembly (MEA) and others local catalyst production. Together, these components make up the fuel cell stack.

HySA Catalysis is focused on fuel cell catalyst production and various companies are involved with MEA production plans, including Isondo Precious Metals, which intends manufacturing at the OR Tambo SEZ.

There are also companies that concentrate on fuel cell products based on water electrolysis and proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology. It is PEM fuel cells that make use of platinum catalysis.

From a South African perspective, the public sector is creating SEZs, including the Platinum Valley SEZ, in North West province, and some PGM mining companies are enabling the development of fuel cell mining equipment to reduce air pollution on mines.

Local fuel cell and electrolyser uptake will be essential to attract local investors into SEZs, which offer major tax concessions.

Ultimately, green hydrogen is what the world wants and electrolysers and fuel cells can meet that need.