Amplats testing fuel cell-powered loco at Rustenburg mine

9th May 2012 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

RUSTENBURG (miningweekly.com) – Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) on Wednesday launched the first of five fuel cell-powered locomotive prototypes to be tested at its mining operations in South Africa.

The first locomotive would be surface tested over the next few months at the company's Khomanani mine, in Rustenburg, to establish the viability of commercialisation.

Amplats delivered the project in collaboration with Vehicle Projects, Trident South Africa and Battery Electric.

The company aimed to use the five fuel cell-powered locomotives for underground testing in one of its mines – yet to be decided – by the end of the year, Vehicle Projects president Arnold Miller told Mining Weekly Online.

Amplats CEO Neville Nicolau said that using the platinum-based hydrogen-powered fuel-cell locomotives would reduce the energy dependence of its mines and would be more environment-friendly than traditional rail transport. Fuel cell-powered locomotives would also create jobs and provide a more economical mining environment.

"If feasible, this could unlock and drive the development of a whole new industrial sector in South Africa," he said, pointing out that Amplats was engaging with local government to determine the feasibility of establishing a fuel cell industry in Limpopo.

If the initial testing of the fuel cell-powered locomotives proves them to be sustainable, the fuel cells would be manufactured locally, said Amplats head of market development and research Anthea Bath.

The group was collaborating with US-based fuel cells company Altergy to manufacture fuel cell systems locally and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Following this and the development of the new market, Amplats would only participate as a joint venture partner, at the most, and return to its core business of mining, Nicolau pointed out.

The South African platinum industry currently operated about 4 000 locomotives, with Amplats accounting for 800, said Anglo American group CEO Cynthia Carroll.

"A South African fuel cell industry would support the country's drive for jobs and help to meet its energy challenges. There would also be clear potential to export knowledge and products to a global market," she said.

Anglo American said that, for the past three years, it had worked with the Department of Science and Technology to encourage and support greater beneficiation of platinum.

To this end, a report commissioned by Anglo American in 2011 to develop a roadmap for the fuel cell industry in the country, found that, with the “appropriate” level of deployment and investment in manufacturing, installation and maintenance activities, “hundreds of thousands” of new South African jobs could be created in the next 30 years.

Nicolau added that Amplats identified beneficiation as key for moving its business forward and aimed to participate and partner in beneficiation through investments in human capital, facilitating technology transfer and creating an enabling environment to facilitate commercialisation.

He pointed out the establishment of an “environment in which fuel cells could be developed, manufactured and distributed”, would, in addition to job creation, assist with economic growth and the development of rural areas.

Precious metals firm Johnson Matthey reported last year that global demand for platinum for use in fuel cells reached an all-time high of 20 000 oz in 2010. The company expected a strong increase in the number of applications in which fuel cells were used, resulting in increased demand for platinum-group metals.

Fuel cells played a significant role in stationary, portable and auxiliary power, as well as material handling globally.

A fuel cell is essentially a gas battery that produces electricity as long as it is fed with hydrogen gas. Amplats explained that fuel cells provided availability 24/7 and there was no need to change or recharge the battery it replaced, which meant less downtime and increased productivity.