A new hydrogen fuel-cell technology could revolutionise the African telecoms market


A new hydrogen fuel-cell technology could revolutionise the Africantelecoms market, by bringing clean, low-cost power to remote cell towers, says Robert Carlton-Shields, Afrox business manager for special products and chemicals.

The local industrial gases company said yesterday it has partnered with UK-based Diverse Energy to conduct field trials of hydrogen-from-ammonia fuel technology in three regions across Africa.
The first test takes place in a remote area in Namibia, with trials to be run in Johannesburg in September, according to Carlton-Shields. “Plans are currently in a sensitive stage, but as soon as the units are placed we will have permission to release the information,” he notes.
According to Afrox, the technology uses ordinary ammonia to extract hydrogen as a fuel source to efficiently power cellphone towers that have no access to main grid electricity. “The science could revolutionise the alternative energy solutions market in the telecommunications industry worldwide,” says Afrox.
Carlton-Shields explains that Diverse Energy’s PowerCube system acts as a compact energy source, which could replace diesel generators, delivering higher efficiency and reducing fuel and maintenance costs. ”This will have a number of impacts, from connecting remote communities to carbon savings though lower emissions, to reduced fuel theft and in turn increased safety for communities situated around the towers.”
Afrox points to a recent report by Ernst & Young, indicating the telecoms market in Africa is forecast to grow faster than any other region, with increasing competition making operational efficiency a top priority.
Analyst firm Capgemini also notes in a recent white paper that incumbents in most developing markets are expanding their networks to reach out to rural areas, as user numbers boom. In the Middle East and Africa, for example, it’s estimated an additional 100 000 towers would be required to extend reach in the next five years, a growth of over 50% from current figures.
Carlton-Shields says the main challenges traditionally facing operators is that coverage in remote regions is very patchy, and that powering towers using diesel generators comes with cost and logistics issues. In addition, the theft of diesel from the tanks often results in the shutting down of the tower until it can be refuelled.
According to Afrox, the fuel technology being tested promises a 25% reduction in total cost of ownership over five-years with a return on total equipment cost within two years.
Carlton-Shields adds that ammonia is readily available in most sub-Saharan countries. “The ‘source-to-sink’ calculations show an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to diesel generators, together with elimination of noise and local pollution.“
Afrox chemicals product manager, Jaco Coetzee, points out that ammonia is a cheap fuel with high power density, and that procedures for safe handling have been widely established, making ammonia an effective fuel source in rural areas in Africa.
Dr Alastair Livesey, operations director at Diverse Energy, says the hydrogen power units are less vulnerable to theft, when compared with diesel and solar panel alternatives, which have value on the black market.
“Potential thieves would have difficulty selling the ammonia tanks, and wouldn’t be able to siphon from the tanks as they could with diesel. Between 15% and 22% of diesel in Africa is lost to theft in this way.”
According to the company, the PowerCube has by-products of about one litre an hour of highly purified water, which can be used for medical purposes, and 30kg of fertiliser every three months.
Livesey says those quantities are too small for operators to sell, so they can be used in local rural communities instead.
“This is a low cost, environmentally-friendly solution for power in rural areas without access to electricity,” concludes Carlton-Shields.