Fuel cells can play a big role in plugging Africa’s power deficit in a greener way, with commercialisation seen within a decade, an official at Anglo Platinum (Angloplat) said.
Angloplat, the world’s top producer of the precious metal, launched a demonstration fuel cell plant in South Africa’s Limpopo province to produce 200 kilowatts of electricity by converting coal-bed methane (CBM) gas into hydrogen, Reuters reports.
Anthea Bath, head of market development and research, said Angloplat’s interest in fuel cells lay in their potential to boost demand for platinum, used as a catalyst in the cells.
She said the company hoped to use the site to prove the technology’s viability for a continent where millions of people are still in the dark and governments battle in the face of billions of dollars required to boost supply and build networks.
“Fuel cells are a unique opportunity for Africa … they are modular in nature, you can put them in a remote area, they can run on or off grid, they can run on (various) feed sources,” she told Reuters in an interview.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and heat. Various feed sources, such as methane and natural gas, can be reformed into hydrogen to run it.
Bath said that even though fuel cells were used in Europe and the United States in buildings, schools, telecoms towers and hospitals, they still needed to gain worldwide acceptance, especially in Africa.
“There are a lot of aspects that need to be improved before fuel cells can be adopted fully, but in terms of the technology, it’s on the crest of commercialisation,” she said.
Angloplat bought the second-hand demonstration unit from United Technologies’ UTC Power and invested about 10 million rand in the project so far, a first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa, Bath said.
Despite the high upfront capital needs, the maintenance costs for the plant, monitored remotely and with no moving parts, are low.
“On a total cost basis, fuel cells are going to be competitive with existing technologies,” Bath said.
AngloPlat is working closely with the government to develop skills centres around the country to promote fuel cells as a viable technology for the country and beyond.
“We might not be the ones making them, but we would like to see companies making them for the local market … there are economic, environmental and social benefits to looking at fuel cells,” she said.