From: Andrew Burger, Triple Pundit, More from this Affiliate
Published December 17, 2007 10:56 AM

South Africa Sees Potential in a Hydrogen Economy

The Dept. of Science & Technology (DST) is instrumental in charting the future course of development in South Africa. Of late, it has been busy finalizing a national Hydrogen-Fuel Cell Strategy that aims to take advantage of some of the natural advantages South Africa's rich mineral resource base confers.

News broke nationwide end of November that South Africa's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was joining with North West University to establish a hydrogen-fuel cell “Centre of Competence”¯. The news, however, was “a bit premature,”¯ according to a DST executive.

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Two other hydgrogen research centers have already been established but have not been officially announced publicly. The CSIR-North West center represents the third leg of a national strategy that entails undertaking applied research in the areas of hydrogen and fuel cell production, distribution and applications in industrial, commercial and consumer sectors of the economy.

The premature news release pre-empted in part the DST minister's plans to announce the national Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Strategy in January. DST plans to officially announce and provide additional information about its overarching national strategy early next year. The plan has been approved by the national cabinet and allocated a ZAR 60 million budget for its first year; capital resources that may eventually expand to ZAR 300 million over three years, according to the DST executive.

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Clean Energy Potential at Home and Internationally

South Africa is particularly well suited as a candidate for developing a vertically integrated hydrogen-fuel cell economy. It is the world's leading producer of platinum, the essential key catalyst in fuel cell and hydrogen production processes. Assisting the development of such an industry would not only create jobs and value-added industrial and commercial opportunities in South Africa, it would also likely leave the country well-positioned to export hydrogen, fuel cells and associated products and technology, the DST official noted.

“South Africa is facing a number of energy challenges”¦This is a strategy that positions South Africa to serve the international, global hydrogen economy, one that relies on platinum, of which South Africa is the world's leading producer...It’s an industrial strategy that addresses the world obsession with energy security and the environmental impact of energy production.”¯

Emerging alternative fuels and power sources such as hydrogen and fuel cells will have a tough time in countries such as South Africa, or any country, without government incentives that provide leadership and the political will to see them through to fruition, as well as active support by companies in existing, established economic sectors that could participate and/or benefit from such development, however.

Fuel cells are already increasingly being used, mostly to supply high-quality uninterrupted power for industrial and commercial facilities, the official noted, but the costs remain prohibitive for wider spread adoption.

Whereas coal and nuclear are both subsidized and the country's main power and fuel producers owned by the government, there are no incentives for producing hydrgogen or fuel cells. The costs associated with continuing to develop technology and process improvements, much less build out infrastructure and products for the industrial, commercial and consumer sectors, that can make them more competitive are high.

And while being the world's leading producer of platinum was a key factor in DST developing the national hydrogen and fuel cell strategy, the country’s platinum miners have not as yet stepped up and expressed interest in participating or funding any of the research to be conducted at the three centers. “My feeling is that the mining houses should be working with us”¦to be part of the solution,”¯ the DST official said.

Researchers, notably in Japan, continue their search for a cheaper substitute for platinum, a key element in automotive catalytic converters and oil refining processes, but have as yet been unable to find one. That could change, however. Developing a hydrogen-fuel cell market at home in South Africa would give platinum miners another steady, local and long-term buyer. And in addtion to helping their status as corporate citizens at home, they could make good use of fuel cells in their own operations as they are ideally suited for use in off-grid industrial facilities and mine sites.

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