Fuel cell technology in South Africa, which can be attributed to significant input from the platinum industry, celebrated two milestones on Thursday.

In partnership with the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Impala Platinum (Implats) unveiled its prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station at its Impala Refineries in Springs, outside Johannesburg.

The three-year project, which is the first of its kind in South Africa, commenced in 2012 and was a collaborative effort between Impala Platinum Refineries, Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems, the UWC and the Department of Science and Technology.

The initiative cost R12 million and focuses on building local skills in the development of hydrogen and fuel cell products and co-funding the development of the prototype forklift and refuelling station.  The project utilises a local supply chain consisting of Hot Platinum, TF Designs, Air Products and Sasol.

Over the last three years, HySA Systems received a total of R6 million from Implats for the development of a fuel cell-powered prototype forklift and refuelling station. Implats plans to use hydrogen fuel cell technology as its main source of energy for material handling and underground mining equipment.

This investment is a result of extensive discussions and negotiations between Implats and UWC’s South African Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry (SAIAMC), under the leadership of Professor Vladimir Linkov.

“With Implats becoming a partner to SAIAMC, UWC has achieved the long-term goal of entering strategic research, development and innovation partnerships with an absolute national leader in one of the pillars of energy generation for current and future needs of the South African economy. This partnership is unique in the national system of innovation, unparalleled by any other university laboratory or institute in South Africa,” comments Professor Vladimir Linkov, Director of SAIAMC.

Fahmida Smith, Fuel Cell Coordinator at Implats’ Impala Refining Services says, “These new applications are an exciting development in Implats’ move towards exploring a carbon-neutral fuel source for our operations and a practical example of our participation in collaborative efforts to develop fuel cell technologies and a vibrant, sustainable local fuel cell sector.”

Fuel cells are a collection of technologies that use electro-chemical processes rather than combustion to produce power. The technology will significantly enhance ventilation requirements, and reduce heat, noise levels, and noxious and sulphide emissions underground.

Southern Africa is home to around 80% of the world’s platinum resources so the potential for platinum-based fuel cells to drive economic development is enormous. The fuel cell industry has the potential to revolutionise the way power is delivered to all areas of our lives including cars, mobile phones, computers, homes and workplaces.

The technology’s demand for the use of platinum provides additional avenues for beneficiation for Implats’ Platinum Group Metals (PGMs). In addition, Implats’ development support for fuel cells is aligned with the group’s strategy to use ‘green’ technologies to improve the environmental and safety conditions within all its operations.

Commenting on the advantages of the technology, Smith adds, “The metal hydride hydrogen storage system allows the forklift to operate at lower pressures of 190 bar, thus improving safety and costs on the vehicles. The cost of the local refuelling station is around R2 million compared with €500 000 for international systems.

The fuel cell forklift also has lower noise levels and the metal hydride storage system ensures that there is sufficient fuel for two to four days operation before hydrogen refuelling is required - a process that takes only seven minutes.”

Dr Cordellia Sita, Director of HySA Systems, notes: “Fuel cell-powered forklifts are gaining significant traction world-wide and are now entering mainstream commercialisation. However, the limited availability of refuelling infrastructure, coupled with the challenge of finding the most appropriate on-board hydrogen storage technology remains a big challenge."

"Through this demonstration project, HySA Systems has addressed both challenges through the use of a novel metal hydride material for both hydrogen compression and storage.”

Implats CEO Terence Goodlace comments: “Developing a viable fuel cell industry in South Africa has several advantages for the country such as economic development, sustainable job creation and social good.  As the world’s largest platinum supplying region there is a guaranteed supply of the metal as well as the potential to increase global platinum demand.”

Over the long term, Implats plans to fast-track local manufacturing of fuel cells and the associated components within a proposed tributary Special Economic Zone in the Springs region.

The company’s longer-term strategic investments include exploring a carbon neutral fuel source for its operations, and participating in collaborative efforts through the Implats’ roadmap to develop fuel cell technology to drive knowledge-based skills development, job creation and to increase foreign direct investment in South Africa.

Chamber of Mines celebrates 1st anniversary of its fuel cell

The 31st of March marks a year since the Chamber of Mines launched the first 100 kw commercial building base load platinum fuel cell using low pressure natural gas in the country – and Africa.

The Chamber of Mines will continue to demonstrate the potential for local manufacture and the industrial use of platinum in South Africa and Africa; promote platinum beneficiation, capture and sustain technical and operational fuel cell knowledge and unlock South Africa’s natural resources through the use of natural gas and platinum.

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.

The Chamber of Mines’ office in the Johannesburg CBD continues to be powered by a platinum fuel cell that uses low-pressure natural gas.