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Hydrogen leap needed to aid platinum’s future

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Hydrogen leap needed to aid platinum’s future

11th January 2019

By: Martin Creamer
Creamer Media Editor

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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – A South African decision to step firmly into the hydrogen age, like so many other countries are doing, has great potential benefit for the country.

Because South Africa has better combined solar and wind resources than just about any other country, it is well positioned to generate hydrogen using competitively-priced renewable energy.

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The hydrogen can be used in platinum-catalysed hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity.

Against the background of the long experience of Sasol and PetroSA with Fischer-Tropsch technology, hydrogen can also be used as an alternative to coal gasification in the production of carbon-neutral synthetic petrol, diesel and chemicals.

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All this would, in turn, keep South Africa perfectly in line with the growing global use of hydrogen to make the world cleaner and greener.

While the Hydrogen South Africa strategy provides useful technical insight, far bolder steps now need to be taken to keep South Africa abreast of the world’s embrace of hydrogen to curb climate change, which is exemplified by the widespread affirmation that platinum-catalysed hydrogen fuel cells are receiving world-wide.

In the first two weeks of this year, for instance, hydrogen fuel cells have been:

  • selected to run cargo operations at the Port of Valencia in Spain;
  • affirmed by Toyota through a fuel cell truck transaction in the US;
  • emphasised by Alstom through the unveiling of a new hydrogen technology to make train travel cleaner and greener;
  • highlighted by Hyundai through the launch of a new fuel cell sports utility vehicle in the US;
  • miniaturised by Stanford University engineers through the launch of fuel cells many times thinner than a human hair that are lined by platinum nanoparticles;
  • spotlighted by Daimler through the launch of a hybridised Mercedes-Benz that switches to hydrogen fuel cell  power;
  • reaffirmed by Hyundai through a commitment to invest $6.7-billion in fuel cell production;
  • chosen by the builders of a 172-flat complex in Sweden, which is run on stored hydrogen and solar power;
  • initiated in Australia through the opening of a hydrogen test station on the outskirts of Canberra;
  • expanded by Toyota through the deployment of a hydrogen fuel cell forklift in Australia’s Victoria state;
  • militarised by General Motors through the unveiling of a hydrogen fuel cell pickup truck for the US army;
  • facilitated by Linde through the opening of the 36th retail hydrogen refuelling station in California; and
  • the list could go on.

South Africans are taking note of what the Labour government of the south-eastern Australian state of Victoria is doing with its $2-million Victorian Hydrogen Investment Program, which was announced by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D’Ambrosio, to help boost local jobs in Victoria and to tackle climate change.

“We’re investing in this emerging industry so that Victoria is at the forefront of the transition to clean energy,” D’Ambrosio has told the media Down Under.

South African platinum mining companies are also putting more emphasis on market demand, which was exemplified by the analyst visit to China, hosted by Anglo American Platinum. This showed that the Asian country’s incipient hydrogen fuel cell industry is gaining traction, with government subsidies encouraging the uptake of hydrogen vehicles to cut pollution.

Also, South African economists last year urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to adopt an integrated growth and employment plan that increases the competitiveness of the South African economy by placing at its centre the recognition that South Africa has high solar and wind potential and the potential inherent in linking platinum to hydrogen infrastructure.

An important factor is the reality that there is no longer a trade-off between cheap and clean electricity, which means it is low-risk for South Africa to embrace the energy transition.

South Africa is seen as being in a strong position to decarbonise its energy mix cost effectively and in a jobs-rich manner, without undermining security of electricity supply.

There is a general consensus that South Africa can have relatively low-cost clean electricity, as the world transitions to renewables. This is because of the country’s resource advantages in solar and wind and the ability to use clean power to generate hydrogen that can power hydrogen fuel cells catalysed by platinum to produce emission-free mobile and stationary electricity as well as heat.

As outlined by Mining Phakisa coordinator Edwin Ritchken in The Future of Mining in South Africa: Sunset or Sunrise, published by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, the rebuilding of key strategic relationships across the value chain of the platinum group metals (PGMs) sector is essential for the survival of the industry.

His comments arise at a time when the PGMs-hosting western limb of the Bushveld Complex is at a crossroads, brought about by significantly diminished demand for platinum.

Current challenges facing the sector call for collaboration at the highest level to stave off the potential long-term damage of deep-level platinum’s demise to the economy of the North West province.

Because South Africa has better combined solar and wind resources than just about any other country, its power will be comparatively cheap to produce hydrogen from water and use it for a new platinum-catalysed electricity era.

In addition, the hydrogen can replace coal gasification to produce carbon-neutral petrol, diesel and chemicals, with the help of Fischer-Tropsch technology that has been perfected by Sasol and PetroSA.

The newly formed Global Alliance Power Fuels believes that South Africa is well positioned to become a leading site for the large-scale production of liquid fuels from renewable energy and has confirmed with Engineering News Online that the country is on its radar for possible future demonstration projects.

The alliance was launched in Berlin last year following several studies indicating that synthetic fuels produced using renewable electricity could be the “missing link” in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in sectors where it is difficult to employ clean electricity directly.

Access to low-cost and clean electricity will mean that electrification of almost anything can be put on the table, including the revival of South Africa’s minerals-energy complex.

Low-cost electricity also has the potential to aid local electric vehicle production, fertiliser production and chemicals production, all of which would also have export potential. 

Meanwhile, the special economic zone (SEZ) for fuel cell development, proposed for development by the Gauteng Industrial Development Zone initiative and Impala Platinum (Implats), has been approved. The SEZ comprises 16 ha of land donated by platinum company Implats and is located near the Impala Refinery in Springs.

This could serve as a platform for the manufacture of niche fuel cell components, with an eye on domestic and foreign markets.

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