South Africa’s role in clean energy discussed at Mining Indaba

Production will start at South Africa’s first fuel cell component plant by December, it was announced at the Investing in African Mining Indaba. Fuel cells use platinum, and the country is the world’s leading platinum producer.

clean energy mining indaba
Production will start at South Africa’s first fuel cell component plant by December 2017. The plant will have a role to play in making clean energy vehicles. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Brand South Africa reporter
Fuel cell components and using platinum as a catalyst was one of the hot topics at the Investing in African Mining Indaba this week. The annual conference took place from 6-9 February 2017 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

The indaba is dedicated to the capitalisation and development of mining interests in Africa. It was announced during the conference that production would begin at Africa’s first fuel cell component plant by December.

What are fuel cells?
Fuel cells are eco-friendly; use hydrogen or hydrogen-rich fuel, such as natural gas, biogas, and methanol, and oxygen; and they reduce harmful emissions.

Fuel cells also generate electricity and heat from the electrochemical reaction between hydrogen, platinum and oxygen.

The fuel cell component plant
Africa’s first fuel cell component plant using platinum as a catalyst would start production by December this year, Reuters reported.

The announcement comes after Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies launched a R15-million feasibility study a year ago. The Isondo Precious Minerals study is to identify particular components that can be manufactured for fuel cell units.

It was intended to accelerate mineral beneficiation and localisation of fuel cell manufacturing in South Africa.

The fuel cell component plant – a first in Africa – aimed to take advantage of rising demand for clean energy cars, said officials from Isondo Precious Metals.

The group has secured a licence from the American company Chemours Technology to gather components for fuel cells using platinum, which has mainly been used in catalysts to clean up car emissions.

The new plant will be located in a special economic zone either in Johannesburg or Durban.

Fuel cell activity in South Africa:
A hydrogen economy
The organisations partnering in fuel cell technology are HySA Catalysis, HySA Systems and HySA Infrastructure. They all fall under HySA (Hydrogen South Africa). HySA was initiated by the Department of Science and Technology, in its research, development and innovation strategy. It was launched in 2008.

HySA Catalysis is co-hosted by the University of Cape Town and Mintek; HySA Systems is hosted by the University of the Western Cape; and HySA Infrastructure is hosted by North West University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

The parent company’s focus areas include the use and displacement of strategic minerals, and ways of harnessing South Africa’s mineral endowments to promote the hydrogen economy and renewable energy use.

HyPlat is a spinoff company of HySA Catalysis. “Essentially HyPlat is a success story of HySA Catalysis. The technologies developed by HySA Catalysis have been licensed to HyPlat making HyPlat the commercialisation arm of HySA Catalysis,” said HyPlat’s chief executive officer, Dr. Sharon Blair.

“HyPlat sells customised platinum-based fuel cell components in South Africa. These products are sold to foreign customers and exported globally. South Africa has very little fuel cell activity; that’s why most of the customers are companies from abroad.”

Structures that use fuel cells
In the Chamber of Mines building, a 100kW fuel cell produces 70% of the organisation’s electricity. The fuel cell runs on platinum and natural gas.

Explaining the use of South African platinum in the fuel cell, Chamber of Mines spokesperson Charmane Russel said: “The platinum used is the catalyst in an electrochemical process. The platinum is a once-off amount that is never used up.

“However, after about 10 years, the platinum membrane becomes warped and it is then smelted and reapplied in the same fuel cell,” she said. “The platinum reacts with hydrogen to produce electricity – 35kW of heat and 5l of water per hour as a by-product.”

The source of the hydrogen in the chamber’s fuel cell was low pressure natural gas, and it used 420GJ of gas a month, said Russel.

Watch South Africa’s first hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station at work at Implats:

The fuel cell forklift prototype and its refuelling station had been running since November 2015, said Fahmida Smith, the fuel cell co-ordinator at platinum group metals mining house Impala Platinum (Implats). “It’s operating very well.”

South Africa’s first prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station, it is installed at Impala Refining Services in Springs, Gauteng. Over the past three years, Implats has spent R6-million with HySA Systems in developing the prototype. The miner plans to use hydrogen fuel cell technology as its main source of energy for material handling and underground mining equipment.

“We are looking at a wider industry collaboration on commercialisation of this. This is a very early stage and we still need to develop a formal commercialisation strategy,” said Smith.

The fuel cell forklift was refuelled once a week, she explained. “Where this unit is different from a normal battery forklift is in its availability. A pure battery system can operate between four to six hours pending battery size and load.

“It takes at least eight hours to recharge before it can be used again. The fuel cell forklift has a higher availability rate and takes less than 10 minutes to refuel.”

Investments in fuel cell vehicles
Anglo American Platinum was investing $4-million (R53.764m) to help reduce the delivered costs of hydrogen, the mining company said on its website. The investment promised to support the development of hydrogen refuelling stations for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the north-east corridor of the United States.

FCEVs are powered by hydrogen and have the potential to revolutionise transport. FCEVs are fuelled with pure hydrogen gas stored directly on the vehicle. They will only produce water and heat.

Furthermore, the mining house’s investment in United Hydrogen Group, a hydrogen production and distribution business in the United States, was aimed at bolstering the demand for platinum, it said.

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