Fuel Cell Technology
The hydrogen economy is undergoing serious consideration in South Africa, in an effort to develop safe, clean and reliable alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.
Hydrogen is an energy carrier and is used to store and distribute energy and can be combined with the use of fuel cell technologies to produce electricity. Another driving force behind this technology is the prevalence of platinum reserves found in South Africa. Platinum group metals (PGMs) are the key catalytic materials used
in most fuel cells, and with more than 75% of the world’s known platinum reserves found within South African borders, there is great potential for socio-economic benefits to be obtained from these natural resources.
Fuel cells were invented about 150 years ago and directly convert chemical energy into electrical energy in a clean, environmentally friendly way, with no harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the point of use. Converting hydrogen gas to electricity in fuel cells does not “destroy” the hydrogen, but transforms it into water.
Hydrogen can be produced from any hydrocarbon compounds, including fossil fuels, but the emphasis in
South Africa is upon developing hydrogen from renewable energy sources in the long term. Fuel cell technology is more efficient, reliable, quieter and compact, and if the hydrogen used is from a renewable source, this technology is also cleaner and better for the environment.
The commitment to energy security is identified as one of the five priority areas or “grand challenges” in the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) Ten-Year Innovation Plan. Reflecting the shift in national priorities from the extraction of natural resources to the development of a knowledge based economy, these strategic outcomes indicate where South Africa wants to be in 2018.
The five grand challenges include:
The farmer to pharma value chain to strengthen the bio-economy;
Space science and technology;
Global-change science with a focus on climate change;
and Human and social dynamics.
Although hydrogen and fuel cell technology falls squarely under the energy security grand challenge, it also has implications for global-change science with the potential to help mitigate the effects of climate change through reduced emissions and improved adaptation through use of cleaner energy technologies.
Within the DST’s grand challenge on energy security, this interest in hydrogen falls under the National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development and Innovation strategy, branded as Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) in 2008. The strategy stimulates and guides innovation along the value chain of hydrogen and fuel cell
technologies in South Africa, aiming to position the country to drive and optimise local benefits from supplying high value-added products (i.e. PGMs) to the potentially increasing international markets. These local benefits should include economic benefit, through job, wealth and new industries creation; the development of appropriate skills and human resources capital; and an improved quality of life for all South Africans.
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