23 January 2006
South Africa, the world’s leading producer of gold and platinum, is becoming an important testing ground for fuel cells, an alternative technology that promises cleaner, more efficient energy.
International companies such as the UK’s Intelligent Energy and the US’s Power Plug are bringing cutting-edge fuel cell technology to South Africa’s rural areas.
A fuel cell is similar to a battery in that it produces electricity in an electrochemical reaction. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell uses external reactants, typically oxygen and hydrogen, as fuel for the reaction. The reaction products flow out of the cell.
This means fuel cells are more stable and can be run for longer continuous periods than batteries. They are also more efficient than combustion engines.
A fuel cell would generally be used only for back-up purposes. If the regular power supply from the national grid were interrupted, the fuel cell would kick in to provide electricity until the regular supply could be restored. Such backup can be critical for clinics and hospitals, but also for banks, telecommunications and other users of information technology infrastructure.
Intelligent Energy, a UK-based company, have installed a fuel cell at clinic outside Bisho in the Eastern Cape, and a larger installation incorporating solar panels at Mkuze in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Mkuze installation uses fuel cells, batteries, solar power and liquid petroleum gas to provide a complete energy solution for a community of thousands. The fuel cells are the back-up energy supply for computers that control the other energy sources.
“We’re doing it as a showcase,” South African manager Sakib Khan told Business Report.
Intelligent Energy have received numerous accolades for their work in this field. They were named by the World Economic Forum as a technology pioneer for 2006, and Time magazine called their ENV bike, a completely silent fuel cell-powered motorbike, one of “the most amazing inventions of 2005.”
Another company at the forefront of fuel cell production, US-based Plug Power has installed two fuel cells at Koeberg, South Africa’s only nuclear power plant, in the Western Cape.
Cellular company Vodacom is also using Plug Power fuel cells as a back-up power supply for cellphone masts in Shoshanguve in Gauteng, replacing noisy diesel generators.
South Africa is an ideal site for the first tests of fuel cell systems as the country is one of the world’s leading producers of both platinum and gold, two metals that are essential to the hydrogen economy. These metals are used as catalysts within the fuel cell.
“The one thing that’s slowing down development is the cost,” said Khan, “because platinum is so expensive.”
“There’s a lot of research going into getting an alternative to platinum, such as gold.”