South Africa’s first hydrogen fuel cell forklift

4 April 2016

South Africa’s hydrogen fuel cell industry received a boost on 31 March with the unveiling of a prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station at Impala Refining Services in Springs, east of Joburg.

Over the past three years, Impala Platinum Holdings (Implats) has provided HySA Systems with funds of R6-million to enable the prototype development. Implats plans to use hydrogen fuel cell technology as its main source of energy for material handling and underground mining equipment.

Impala Refining Services is a unit of Implats, one of the world’s foremost producers of platinum and associated platinum group metals. The refining services unit was created in July 1998 as a dedicated vehicle to house the toll refining and metal concentrate purchases built up by Implats.

Speaking at the event, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said fuel cell technologies had the potential to provide access to affordable, safe, clean and reliable energy, which was necessary for broad-based economic development and growth in the country.

“While the fuel cell market is still in its infancy in South Africa, recent developments indicate a growing appetite for the technology,” Pandor said.

Starting small

The minister said South Africa had started to make a number of bold moves that could see it “leapfrog into the leading countries in hydrogen fuel cell technology installations” in the short to medium term.

“That’s what we are here to make. A bold move. A forklift may appear to be a small move. But great industries have developed from small moves.”

Hydrogen fuel cell

The metal hydride containers feed the fuel tank with hydrogen required to drive the forklift – similar to petrol or diesel in a motor vehicle (Image: Implats Forklift factsheet)

Collaborative effort

The minister said industry collaborations were critical in taking research outputs from the laboratory to the market.

“To promote further deployment of hydrogen fuel cell technologies, especially in the lucrative automotive sector, public-private partnerships are required to put in place the requisite infrastructure,” Pandor said.

The prototype is a collaborative effort between the Department of Science and Technology through the HySA Systems Centre of Competence based at the University of the Western Cape and Implats, through its Impala Refineries in Springs.

HySA Systems is one of three centres of competence established by the Department of Science and Technology under the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development, and Innovation Strategy. It was established to use local resources to develop high-value commercial activities in hydrogen fuel cell technologies.

The ultimate goal of the HySA Strategy is to enable South Africa to supply 25% of global platinum group metal-based catalyst demand by 2020.

Benefits and challenges

“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,” said Implats chief executive Terence Goodlace. “As the world’s largest platinum-supplying region there is a guaranteed supply of the metal as well as the potential increase in global platinum demand.

Goodlace said this type of technology gave South Africa a chance to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and reduce urban pollutants, which could help to lessen health care costs and lead to an improved quality of life.

The benefits of the metal hydride technology include:

  • Longer operational times between refuelling, contributing to a significant increase in productivity; and,
  • The onboard metal hydride storage allows the forklift to operate at a low pressure (180 bar), which increases safety.

There are hurdles that must still be overcome, 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,” said Dr Cordellia Sita, the director of HySA Systems.

She addressed both challenges through the use of a novel metal hydride material for both hydrogen compression and storage.

More information on the forklift is available on the factsheet.

Source: Department of Science and Technology