Powered by platinum

Online since 5.09.2017 • Filed under Energy • From Issue 6 - September 2017 - February 2018 page(s) 24-25
Powered by platinum

Proponents believe that platinum-based hydrogen fuel cell technology has huge potential for South Africa, not only as a cleaner way to provide base load electricity but also because platinum is the catalyst in many fuel cell designs, and could increase demand for the country’s enormous platinum reserves. The Chamber of Mines explains why.

Fuel cells are not a new idea. The physics was established in 1838, and the first crude example of a fuel cell was demonstrated in 1839. Then, in the 1950s, General Electric chemists developed the concept using platinum as the catalyst for the necessary hydrogen/oxygen reactions. The first hydrogen fuel cell car was developed in 1991 and NASA used fuel cells for both the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.

Over the past 40 years, the fuel cell has progressed from development into application, broadening platinum’s clean energy credentials. While the current world leader in application is South Korea, the global market for fuel cells is still in its infancy. South Africa sees this as a development opportunity, and that platinum fuel cells can help to address the increasing demand for energy, decrease country’s high carbon footprint, create jobs, and beneficiate South Africa’s platinum.

The chief challenges to the adoption of fuel cells are capital costs and the need for gas as a fuel. Nevertheless, fuel cell technology is increasingly being explored and promoted locally. A fuel cell using just 40 ounces of platinum and low-pressure natural gas is powering the Chamber of Mines’ building in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district. While the use of stationary fuel cells to power buildings is becoming more common in the USA, Germany, Japan and Korea, this is the first base load commercial low pressure natural gas installation in Africa.

The Chamber’s fuel cell, installed in December 2014, was the culmination of a four-year initiative to demonstrate the applicability of fuel cell technology in South Africa. The fuel cell industry has the potential to revolutionise the way power is delivered, and the Chamber of Mines continues to demonstrate the potential for local manufacture and the industrial use of platinum in South Africa and Africa. It also continues to promote platinum beneficiation, to capture and sustain technical and operational fuel cell knowledge, and to unlock South Africa’s natural resources by using natural gas and platinum.

What is a fuel cell?

A fuel cell is a highly-efficient and ultra clean power generation system based on an electrochemical process, not combustion, to reduce harmful emissions (NOx, SOx and CO2). It is reliable, with power availability in excess of 99% of the time in multiple unit configurations or connected in parallel with the electric grid. It is modular and scalable, which means it can be installed and operated in parallel to meet any size of electrical load requirement – additional units can be added incrementally as a facility requires. It is quiet and durable – quiet enough to install inside or outside a building (normal conversation can be conducted within close proximity of the fuel cell); and it generates electricity and heat from the electrochemical reaction between hydrogen, platinum, oxygen, and in this case phosphoric acid, without energy conversion through fuel combustion.

A fuel cell has a fire inertisation ability and is used in protecting data centres and high fire risk areas, such as tyre storage facilities. It is eco-friendly, readily available, and uses hydrogen or hydrogen-rich fuel (such as natural gas, biogas, methanol) and oxygen. Other benefits include its use for propulsion or auxiliary power in transportation (cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, submarines and spacecraft); and its versatile technology (each fuel cell type has unique operational characteristics for a broader range of applications than any other currently available power source – from large power plants to vehicles and residential power for mobile phone chargers and toys).

How fuel cells operate

1. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity with water and heat as its by-product.

2. A single fuel cell consists of two electrodes – an anode and a cathode – with an electrolyte between them.

3. At the anode, hydrogen reacts with a catalyst, creating a positively-charged ion or proton and a negatively-charged electron.

4. The proton then passes through the electrolyte while the electron travels through a circuit, creating a current.

5. At the cathode, oxygen reacts with the ion and electron, forming water and useful heat.

When cells are stacked in series the output increases, ranging anywhere from several watts to multiplemegawatts. South Africa is in a unique position to drive the platinum group metals (PGMs) market in the right direction by actively promoting and using fuel cells, not only to be able to beneficiate our platinum but in driving industrialisation. To date the local uptake of fuel cell technology has been disappointing, but there are signs that this market is starting to see growth.

Job creation

The fuel cells industry potential, as a key benefactor, is strategically positioned to take advantage of this increased interest and demand as it will accelerate PGMs manufacturing in South Africa for both local consumption and export, driving the economy and creating sustainable jobs. The impact on job creation in the mining sector is significant and the associated manufacturing and servicing job opportunities, while not being high in number in comparison to the mining sector, provide advanced skills development opportunities.

Alternative energy and economic growth

Unlike a conventional power plant, the electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen with a fuel cell generates electricity directly, without undergoing an energy conversion process through fuel combustion, making it highly efficient, eco-friendly, and readily available for distributed generation as a next-generation energy source. The development of other fuel cell catalysts, other than platinum, poses a potential threat to South Africa’s beneficiation drive. However, by acting decisively in taking a lead in the fuel cell value chain, South Africa can emerge as the custom-engineered and integration manufacturing and servicing hub of Africa.

Registering for carbon credits

Fuel cell technology is aligned with the Chamber of Mines’ commitment to an agreement reached at COP21, aimed at creating a more environmentally-sustainable future through the Sustainable Development Goals. In the most recent news from the Chamber of Mines, it is now in the process of registering its platinum fuel cell project with the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). By doing so it hopes to be able to obtain tradable carbon credits through a programme of activities (PoA) under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The 100kW fuel cell currently uses piped natural gas to generate electricity and heat at the Chamber of Mines head office in Johannesburg. The electricity and heat generated from the cogeneration fuel cell project displaces the grid electricity requirements of the Chamber of Mines’ building. As this grid is predominantly coal-fired and therefore, heavily carbon-intensive, the reduction in electricity consumption from the grid results in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. For more information, visit www.chamberofmines.org.za.

Issue 6 - September 2017 - February 2018

Issue 6 - September 2017 - February 2018

This article was featured on page 24-25 of SABI Magazine Issue 6 - September 2017 - February 2018 .

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