Fuel cell technology developer Isondo Precious Metals (IPM) says hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) will be able to consistently and reliably provide driving ranges comparable to those of today’s internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
IPM COO Dr Sakib Khan explains that FCEVs, unlike battery EVs (BEVs), will provide the same customer experience as current ICE vehicles. This means similar driving ranges, and refuelling in three minutes. A BEV generally needs to be charged overnight when out of power. A supercharger can charge a BEV in 45 minutes, but this typically requires between 145 kW to 300 kW of power.
This puts significant strain on today’s aging power grids and could potentially cause brownouts if, for example, ten BEV’s are charging in one area simultaneously, drawing up to 3 MW of power, he says.
The hydrogen fuel cells used in FCEVs use platinum catalysts within the membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) and many MEAs stacked together form the fuel cell stack. The stack produces electricity through the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen (without combustion) that powers an electric motor, with the only exhaust product being pure water vapour, explains Khan.
BEVs use lithium-ion batteries, which lose the ability to store electricity effectively over time, like cellular phones. Further, lithium-ion batteries cannot be recycled and are difficult to replace as they are large, expensive and difficult to produce.
IPM CEO Vinay Somera notes that while BEVs are currently leading the charge towards a zero emission future for the automotive industry, fuel cells offer the best solution over the long term.
He further points out that using hydrogen in cars is currently as safe as using petrol, with hydrogen refuelling stations being extensively engineered to the highest safety standards. Hydrogen tanks have been designed to exacting safety standards and, with hydrogen being the lightest element on earth, any leaks will disperse quickly into the atmosphere.
Khan states that, while hydrogen is a highly flammable gas, when it does burn, it combines with oxygen in the air, creating water vapour and only burning for a short while. The hydrogen gas tanks in the hydrogen- powered vehicles are thoroughly researched and several tests are done on each before being installed in the vehicles.
Khan explains that hydrogen electric cars can be filled within three to five minutes, with hydrogen gas being available from sources such as electrolysis of water and reformation of primary fuels.
“Petrol and diesel comes from oil, while hydrogen can come from many sources, including green hydrogen produced by electrolysing water,” he says.
Khan explains that developing countries can move away from fossil fuel systems that cause environmental damage, and switch to hydrogen, which can also be used to power houses. “Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) can be used to create hydrogen, large-scale solar plants can make hydrogen using electrolyses and where there are biofuels available, they can be reformed into hydrogen.
The benefit to emerging markets is significant because they don’t need to lock themselves down to a volatile international oil price,” highlights Khan, adding that it could help in growing energy infrastructure faster in developing countries.
However, Somera says growth in emerging markets currently lags BEV growth, while FCEVs are only now gaining traction in the developed markets.
He says growth in the FCEV industry is imperative from a South African perspective to avoid a demand catastrophe for the platinum market.
Somera explains that an ICE uses between 3 g and 5 g of platinum in a catalytic converter and, if these engines are replaced with BEVs, then up to half the global platinum demand could be under threat, with the consequential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The platinum catalyst coating in the MEA within a FCEV currently uses up to 30 g of platinum, which will help increase demand for the South African platinum market. It is important that South African companies and government work together in developing a fuel cell vehicle future, he highlights.
Further, Khan points out that, unlike lithium-ion batteries, the platinum in MEAs can be recycled and reused to create more MEAs for fuel cells.
IPM is to manufacture MEAs using a specially designed state-of-the-art manufacturing plant that is being built by German coating equipment manufacturer Coatema Coating Machinery. Khan explains that the company will be exporting the final product to other countries, where cars, stationary fuel cells and electrolysers will be manufactured.
The plant will arrive later this year in South Africa once IPM has secured a location for it. Somera points out that the Dube TradePort, in KwaZulu-Natal, or the OR Tambo International Airport Industrial Development Zone, in Gauteng, are the two possibilities under consideration.
Somera explains that, because the FCEV market is still in its infancy in the developing markets, like South Africa, IPM is working on developing hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, which is a prerequisite before fuel cell vehicles from car manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Daimler can be rolled out. These vehicles are currently being sold on international markets, with Daimler having released the new GLC fuel cell sports utility vehicle a few weeks ago.
He concludes that subsequent to plant deployment, the company will produce and validate the MEAs and expects to become commercially viable by 2019.