The use of platinum group metals- (PGMs-) based fuel cells in electricity and mobility applications is expected to provide ample commercial opportunities for South Africa, in line with worldwide trends to decarbonise electricity generation and transport.
However, the high cost of these technologies, coupled with limited markets to sell them into, dampens the business case for scaling up local manufacturing.
Industry experts attending policy think-tank Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection's (Mistra's) third yearly PGM roundtable, on Thursday, discussed policies, mechanisms and strategies to improve local participation in fuel cell and hydrogen technology industries.
Mistra executive director Joel Netshitenzhe noted that commercial hydrogen fuel cell trains had been introduced in Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, France and Canada, with plans to introduce these in more cities.
China is aiming to produce two-million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030 and automotive manufacturer Toyota and its partners aim to increase hydrogen fuel tank production from 3 000 a year to 30 000 a year.
Locally, fuel cell-powered forklifts and underground dozers were being tested and the global market for fuel cell products was expected to be large, with the Japanese fuel cell market estimated to worth $70-billion by 2050, he said.
However, South Africa faces considerable challenges to cultivate the necessary demand and develop the productive capacity, support and infrastructure to increase its participation in and benefits from the hydrogen economy.
Department of Energy electricity and energy efficiency regulation director Matthews Bantsijang emphasised that the cost of hydrogen systems remained high and reduced the fiscal space to accommodate the nascent industry. This was reflected in the Integrated Resource Plan 2018, which did not include any allocations for fuel cell technologies.
However, a Ministerial determination was issued to procure 200 MW a year of hydrogen generation systems, which would help to support local production.
Department of Science and Technology (DST) hydrogen and energy director Dr Cosmas Chiteme highlighted that much of the expertise required to industrialise PGM technologies was present in the country and could be leveraged. While the membrane electrode assemblies, which contained the PGM catalyst, was about 30% of the cost, South Africa's engineering expertise could help to reduce the remaining 60% balance of plant costs.
The DST's Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) initiative has produced 49 MSc and PhD graduates and its centres of competency in partnership with universities and science councils continued to produce systems and technologies for the industry, including metal hydride compression, electrochemical compression and liquid organic hydrogen carriers for liquid storage and distribution.
The HySA initiative has also produced commercial products that were spun out into companies, he said.
Impala Platinum (Implats) market development manager Fahmida Smith said fuel cells could serve a range of functions as part of a diverse energy mix because fuel cell generation could be built to be nonvariable and integrated to support variable and intermittent generation, to provide storage and to meet peak demand.
Additionally, fuel cells were highly efficient and could use diverse energy sources including natural gas, biogas, methanol water or pure hydrogen.
"The fuel cell market is a nascent market and Implats' projects are considering backwards integration of the technology into existing South African applications. Fortunately, electric drivetrains are required for fuel cell electric vehicles," she said.
The South African Post Office has converted some of its electric scooters to extend their range, and the refuelling stations use metal hydride canisters for hydrogen storage, added Chiteme.
The application of fuel cell technologies for longer distance road and rail freight was commercially viable, but required refuelling infrastructure and these questions were at the heart of industrialisation considerations, noted Smith.
Implats supported the development of a PGM special economic zone (SEZ) to provide a platform for the development, commercialisation and industrialisation of PGM technologies, she added.
Gauteng industrial development zone (IDZ) chief investment officer Maidei Matika cited the Springs IDZ, in Ekurhuleni, as the likely PGM SEZ because it had access to gas and hydrogen gas pipes in the area, and hosted PGM industries, including an Implats refinery.
The SEZ concept was also geared to promote export and the aim was to produce intermediate components, such as the membrane electrode assemblies, and, over time, higher-value PGM components, including products developed by HySA and local industry participants, for global value chains and markets.