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Jan 27, 2012

27/01/2012 (On-The-Air)

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Every Friday morning, SAfm’s AMLive’s radio anchor Xolani Gwala speaks to Martin Creamer, publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly. Reported here is this Friday’s At the Coalface transcript:

Gwala: South Africa is set to benefit from its strong position in vanadium, which is being developed to store electricity. Tell us about that.

Creamer: South Africa at one stage was the biggest miners of vanadium. We do that out at Highveld Steel and Vanadium. The good news now coming out of China is that China wants to develop vanadium flow batteries. It wants to do that to store electricity.

Now, we notoriously waste electricity, we don’t do much storing of electricity that is why at night we have been trying to have the Drakensberg Water Scheme so that when no one is using electricity, we use it to pump the water up the mountain and then when the demand comes, we let it go down the mountain and generate the electricity. So, batteries have been looked at for a long time, but those hydro-schemes are few and far between and they are expensive.

At the moment, I think our storage in the world is about 1 000 MW or something like that. China is looking and this is a phenomenal number. Initially China gave the impression that they would look to store renewable energy, in other words, when the wind didn’t blow, they’d have energy, because they would have stored it while the wind was blowing.

When the sun was shining, they would have stored it so that they can have it when its not shining. People were working on a storage type of business that would have been related to renewal, but the Chinese have shaken their heads with this new test facility they just put in in December.

They are testing three types of storage facilities and saying that they are looking at storing 10% of all the electricity that China generates. The total picture which people are now saying if this happens in the next seven years as the Chinese are planning it gives birth to a trillion dollar plus industry.

People are having to move fast now to try and see how they can add to this. We know that the Americas are also looking at a lot of storage of electricity. Even last year this time Barrack Obama, when he was introduced to this vanadium flow battery, said that it is one of the coolest things his every looked at.

So, everybody is starting to consider the storage of energy and South Africa is very well placed. We have already got the platinum as we have been discussing here that can work on fuel-cells. This is also a type of fuel-cell, vanadium also a type of catalyst.

Perhaps this park that the government wants to establish, they are looking at some sort of Silicon Valley of platinum. Perhaps they could include other metals and minerals like vanadium, because after all Silicon Valley doesn’t really apply to silicon, it’s all high-tech stuff.

Gwala: Staying with matters surrounding energy, the US government is now offering South Africa’s free insights into the money-making shale-gas business.

Creamer: This is the second part of the dialogue with the US. It began in Washington last year, when the energy bodies of South Africa and US had a dialogue and now its continued this month in South Africa. The Americans are saying are saying that they have gone through the whole know-how process of shale-gas, they are a developed economy and they know the sort of environmental safeguards that are needed, the health standard etc.

We have got shale gas in the Karoo and they understand that the environmentalists are upset and they are stopping the process at the moment. The US Department of Energy, they have got a whole lot of know-how and recommendations how to overcome these environmental issues and they are prepared to share those with us.

This is something that South Africa should take up, because a developed world country like America has gone from zero to hero in shale gas in 12 years. At the turn of the century there was hardly any shale gas, because there wasn’t the technology to do it.

With the technological breakthrough, the fracking, of course, America has now 30% of its natural gas coming from shale gas. We can see a tremendous potential. We are sitting in the Karoo here they are talking about one of the biggest deposits of shale gas possibly 485-trillion cubic feet.

That has to be firmed up. Now we have got this helping hand saying let us give you a start on this, because we have gone through the process already and we know how valuable this. It is a miracle story, could make a lot of money for South Africa, and, of course, we also have to satisfy the environmental imperatives and hopefully with the help of the Department of Energy of the United States we can do so painlessly.

Gwala: Now, for a bit of a sad story really, after less then two years, South Africa’s one and only orbiting satellite has been declared dead and the space mission is now being wound up.

Creamer: It was a short-lived SumbandilaSat. It was smacked by a burst of solar radiation in mid-year last year. Of course, they have been trying to make contact with it, but fruitlessly. Now they have decided that they must just give up on that space mission.

So that space mission is being wound up. People are starting to ask how much did it cost? Initially we were told that the satellite was very cheap, R11-million.

It came out of the private sector. We have had SunSat, which was a private sector satellite that went up in the 90s and that was developed by Stellenbosch University. When it came to this new SunSat business being set-up they also developed and designed this satellite very cheaply.

Initially the figure of R11-million was raised then R26-million, but they have now calculated everything and they are saying that it cost about R100-million. When they look to the next satellite, which they will launch in a few years time, the budget is going to be much higher. They are now talking about R400-million for the next one. So, we can see a big step up on this. They claim that they had 1 000 or so images from the previous one that where usable.

They gave the images of the floods in Namibia and the tsunami in Japan. There was this earth observation imaging that we benefitted from. It is not all a loss situation, but still the transparency around how much these things cost will need to be far greater in future.

Gwala: Thanks very much. Martin Creamer is publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly, he’ll be back with us at the same time next week.

Edited by: Creamer Media Reporter
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