US firm and platinum miner in JV to make fuel cells in SA

NALEDI PANDOR, NEVILLE NICOLAU AND TERRY CARLONE A new joint venture will manufacture fuel cells in South Africa by 2013

Picture by: DUANE DAWS

NALEDI PANDOR, NEVILLE NICOLAU AND TERRY CARLONE A new joint venture will manufacture fuel cells in South Africa by 2013

Platinum group metals miner Anglo Platinum (Angloplat), through the first investment of its Platinum Group Metals Development Fund (PGMD Fund), and US-based Altergy Systems, announced on Monday that they would partner with the Department of the Science and Technology (DST) to establish a new company, Clean Energy Incorporated, to market and distribute fuel cells in South Africa, followed by the local manufacture of fuel cells for the sub-Saharan market by 2013.

Both the DST, through the Technology Innovation Agency, and the PGMD Fund would invest in the transaction and, along with Altergy, would each receive an equity position in Clean Energy.

None of the parties wished to disclosed the value of their investment in the venture.

Clean Energy would receive the PGMs for any fuel cell manufacturing at market-related prices.

Angloplat market development and research head Anthea Bath said it would take around two years to first develop the regional fuel cell market, before it would become viable to set up a production facility.

Fuel cells used a variety of feedstreams, such as hydrogen, ammonia or liquid petroleum gas, to generate electricity. Most fuel cells used platinum-group-metals (PGMs) as a catalyst for the conversion of hydrogen into electricity, and South Africa had 75% of the world’s PGM reserves.

Angloplat accounted for about 40% of the world’s newly-mined platinum.

“To ensure the use of the metal [platinum] for the life of our mines, we need to develop the market,” said Angloplat CEO Neville Nicolau at the unveiling of the new venture in Pretoria.

“People have been talking about fuel cells for years, and finally we are doing something.”

Nicolau said there existed a wide range of uses for fuel cells, despite the fact that they had a reputation for use largely in cars.

The fuel cells to be marketed and ultimately manufactured in South Africa, would be for stationary power generation use, though.

Nicolau explained that the telecommunications sector would be one of Clean Energy’s first target markets, with fuel cells able to generate power, or back-up power, for cell phone towers. 

Primary stationary power generation applications were also possible for rural areas not connected to the grid.

Nicolau said fuel cells could be as big as cigarette packs, powering a cell phone, or they could consist of from 200 kW to 400 kW units powering several rural households.

The additional benefit, said Nicolau, was that the use of fuel cells could aid in reducing any country’s carbon footprint.

Altergy chairperson Terry Carlone explained that his company’s technology, which it aimed to transfer to South Africa, ensured that fuel cells could be produced in high volumes and at low cost, using a high degree of automation.

This would solve the problem of the high cost traditionally associated with fuel cells and their manufacturing.

Nicolau added that fuel cells would become increasingly less expensive as economies of scale set in.

Bath noted that fuel cell costs were not equivalent to grid electricity costs in South Africa, but that fuel cells could generate electricity at the same cost, or better, than renewable applications, such as wind and solar power.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor envisaged that a local fuel cell sector could generate a substantial number of jobs, not only in manufacturing, but also in the maintenance of the various installations.

She added that it was time for Africa to become “far more innovative” in beneficiating its mineral resources, “instead of relying on this shipping-out mentality, where we dig up our resources and ship them out”.

Pandor added that the manufacturing of fuel cells was in line with  government’s National Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Research, Development and Innovation Strategy.

The objective of this strategy was to enable South Africa to extract more value from beneficiation of its natural resources. The ultimate goal of this national strategy was to supply 25% of the world catalyst demand by 2020.

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