Although South Africa is unlikely to be an early adopter of large-scale hydrogen energy technologies, the country could benefit, in terms of business and jobs, in servicing the emerging hydrogen economy segment around the world.
“If we start to develop specific, high-technology prototypes, that have high potential – that is the way to go. High impact components are of great interest to the world leaders in this technology,” affirmed Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Competence Centre researcher and University of the Western Cape Sasol Professor in Applied Chemistry Vladimir Linkov at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection hydrogen economy workshop at the Innovation Hub, in Pretoria, on Monday.
“We are looking at using metal hydrides, together with fuel cells, for use in forklifts and potentially for underground [mining] locomotives.”
Fuel cells use hydrogen as their energy source; this hydrogen must be stored and metal hydrides, which are metal powders which can absorb and release hydrogen, provide the safest means of storing the gas. “But they are quite slow in absorbing hydrogen,” pointed out Linkov. “We can use PGM [platinum-group metals] coatings on the metal hydrides, increasing the hydrogen absorption by about two orders of magnitude.”
PGMs are of key importance in the development of fuel cells and other hydrogen economy technologies, and South Africa is the world’s main source of these metals, accounting, for example, for 76% of the global platinum supply. Hence the country’s interest in developing hydrogen energy and fuel cell technologies.
The HySA Systems Competence Centre is also working on related technologies including improved batteries, super capacitors, membrane electrode assemblies for high temperature proton exchange membrane fuel cells, palladium-based membranes for reformer systems and electrode materials for lithium-ion batteries.
In terms of programmes, the Competence Centre is active in four areas – combined heat and power systems based on fuel cells, small scale (0.5 kW to 5 kW) stand-alone fuel cell power systems, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and human capital development. “We do hardly any work on a laboratory scale,” he stated. “We work with industrial partners. Everything that we do are actually prototypes.”
“Fuel cells are becoming a reality,” highlighted Linkov. “Platinum loading [the amount of platinum in a fuel cell] has decreased by more than 80% between 2005 and 2010. It needs to decrease more. It’s a must for fuel cells to take off. Cost must no longer be a limiting factor, preventing fuel cells from taking off. But platinum must remain the core of fuel cells.”