South Africa: Hydrogen fuel cells to be deployed in support of COVID-19 response

  • May 20, 2020
  • Fuelcells Works

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), in partnership with the Department of Defence (DOD) and Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI), will deploy seven hydrogen fuel cell units at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria to assist with the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the approval of the Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Strategy by Cabinet in 2007, the HySA programme has made steady progress in developing hydrogen and fuel cell technologies focused on platinum group metal (PGM) beneficiation and improved energy security.

Globally, hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly being recognised as a clean energy technology suitable for both mobile and stationary applications. Using hydrogen gas as an input fuel, a fuel cell produces electrical energy through an electrochemical reaction with a platinum-based catalyst in which only water is emitted as a by-product. If the hydrogen gas is produced from renewable energy (such as solar photovoltaic or wind energy) through water electrolysis, the energy production process has a near-zero carbon footprint.

Hydrogen fuel cells coupled with renewable energy thus have the potential to decarbonise both the energy and transport sectors, with a positive contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Other notable advantages of hydrogen fuel cells include their modular nature, as well as their ability to take a variety of fuel sources from which hydrogen can be extracted, allowing them to be moved rapidly from one point to another. For these reasons, fuel cells have to the potential to play an important role in disaster management and distributed energy generation in remote areas

The project to deploy hydrogen fuel cell units at 1 Military Hospital is a partnership between the government and the private sector, comprising Bambili Energy Group, Singapore-based Horizon, United States-based Element One, and Powercell Sweden. Bambili is a black and female-owned microenterprise focused on commercialising intellectual property (IP) developed through the HySA programme. Horizon and Element One are global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) specialising in fuel cell and reformer manufacturing respectively.

Through the partnership with Bambili, Horizon and Element One have agreed to incorporate HySA IP into their commercial products, including five of the seven fuel cell systems to be deployed at 1 Military Hospital. The remaining two systems involve a partnership with Powercell, a fuel cell OEM from Sweden. Bambili plans to begin local manufacturing of the stationary fuel cell systems by March 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for rapid deployment of health facilities in support of the government’s efforts to combat the spread of the disease and provide high care for those infected. Containerised hydrogen fuel cells can be deployed quickly to provide clean power to such facilities, even if they are temporary.

Accordingly, the DSI, in partnership with the DOD and DPWI, identified 1 Military Hospital for the deployment of fuel cells incorporating HySA IP to support the additional temporary facilities established as part of the government’s response to COVID-19.

The collaboration between the government, private sector and academic institutions involved in the HySA programme is an excellent example of the triple helix type of relationship that is critical for taking technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.

The deployment of the fuel cells at 1 Military Hospital will be complemented by a hands-on training programme to ensure that the skills needed to operate and manage the fuel cell systems are institutionalised within government. The first two phases of training will focus on officials from the DoD and DPWI, while the third phase will focus on unemployed TVET college graduates with N4 electrical or electrical engineering qualifications.

The National Development Plan, as well as the Integrated Resource Plan 2019, highlight the need for South Africa to diversify its energy sources and increase the use of renewable energy and gas to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and address energy security.

This has created a platform for emerging low-carbon energy technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells to be part of South Africa’s future energy mix. The government’s foresight and investments in the HySA programme is therefore commendable. With about 75% of global platinum reserves, it is in the country’s interest to develop and promote clean energy technologies that provide alternative applications for platinum and other PGMs like palladium and rhodium.

The large-scale use of hydrogen fuel cell technologies could mitigate the potential decline in the use of PGMs in catalytic converters for internal combustion engines due to the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa, with its extensive PGM reserves and renewable energy resources, has an opportunity to create a new industry in fuel cell manufacturing and the production of hydrogen from renewable energy for global export.

It should be noted that the production of renewable hydrogen from water requires significant quantities of PGMs. Local manufacturing of fuel cells and renewable hydrogen are therefore potential contributors to job creation and economic recovery post-COVID-19.


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