MAKHAPA MAKHAFOLA The biggest potential new market will be the automotive sector
The National Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technologies Flagship Project, or Hydrogen South Africa (HySA), is more than halfway through its 15-year timeline and 40% away from achieving its goal of commercialising locally developed fuel cell technology on the international and local stage, says State-owned mineral and metallurgical innovation company Mintek research and development (R&D) GM Dr Makhapa Makhafola.
Established in 2007, HySA will, he says, continue to pursue platinum-alloy catalyst development that will lower the cost of membrane electrode assembly (MEA) coating technologies. The development of catalyst-layer technology to limit oxygen transport resistance in the MEAs is also a future objective, as this reduces performance under high loads, as is the production of more corrosion-resistant fuel cell catalysts to improve the durability and longevity of fuel cells.
The Department of Science and Technology is the principal funder of the programme, providing financing of about R20-million a year for each of the three HySA centres – HySA Catalysis, HySA Infrastructure and HySA Systems.
HySA’s goal is to develop local platinum beneficiation through the manufacture of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies for the local and international markets.
Mintek’s mandate as a cohost of the HySA Catalysis centre, along with the University of Cape Town (UCT), is to develop fuel cell catalysts, the MEAs of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells and portable fuel cell stacks in the 500 W to 5 kW range.
Through the HySA Catalysis centre, Mintek and UCT are developing technologies mostly focused on the development of platinum- alloy catalysts that significantly improve the performance of the catalysts relative to platinum-only catalysts.
“Thus, less platinum is needed for the same power output. Also, we are developing a duel direct-coat technology for coating the catalysts onto MEA structures that will eliminate some of the process steps in the traditional coating processes used to manufacture MEAs,” Makhafola explains.
Mintek and UCT’s responsibilities have grown over the last year or so to include stationary applications, owing to the different applications of fuel cell stacks.
Set up in three five-year phases, the HySA programme is currently in its second phase, which requires the establishment of critical supply chain capabilities, the delivery of products to the market and the demonstration of capabilities in pilot markets.
“The first phase was to establish the centres and infrastructure, hire key personnel, identify initial markets and develop the first precommercial technologies,” says Makhafola.
The innovations developed during the first and second phase will enable the facility to compete on world markets and attempt to capture 25% of global catalyst demand in hydrogen and fuel cells, he explains.