Fuel cells provide clean power, cut carbon, sustain jobs


DURBAN (miningweekly.com) – Hydrogen fuel cells using platinum catalysts are efficient, versatile and scaleable and represent a proven technology that ensures clean, reliable and cost-effective power.

This is a strong endorsement of the long-studied fuel-cell technology.

Cynthia Carroll, CEO of the diversified Anglo American mining behemoth, makes this endorsement forcefully.

Carroll drew on an abundance of old and new research to champion the fuel cell’s cause at a function held by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce for the presidency of the United Nations climate change convention’s seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP 17) in Durban.

She says the window of opportunity is “wide open” for South Africa to create “hundreds of thousands of new jobs and simultaneously obtain a source of clean zero-emission electricity”.

Anglo American, through the JSE-listed Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), is the world’s largest producer of platinum.

“With platinum at its heart, a fuel cell industry would support South Africa’s drive for jobs,” Carroll adds.

Anglo American put a think-tank to work – the UK’s Carbon Trust – which finds that hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to drive development of a new industrial sector in South Africa and provide the country with the opportunity to become a major player in the global green economy.

The trust says that with the appropriate levels of deployment of investment in manufacturing, insulation and maintenance activities, “hundreds of thousands of new jobs” could be created over the next 30 years.

It says that the fuel cells produced could simultaneously help to meet South Africa’s existing energy security challenges and provide rural communities with energy, without any major expansion to the national electricity grid.

There would also be clear potential to export knowledge and products to the global market.

“While much of the talk of climate change is understandably focused on mitigating carbon emissions, we mustn’t ignore the huge opportunities that exist in a low-carbon world,” says Carroll.

South Africa is already funding research into fuel cells as part of its hydrogen strategy and fuel cell demonstration projects are there to see.

They range from demonstrations that show how fuel cells can refrigerate vaccine in rural clinics and provide heat and power to hospitals.

Amplats demonstrated a 150 kW zero-emission fuel cell close to the COP 17 conference venue to highlight the green credentials of platinum.

With COP 17 now over, the fuel cell may go to Anglo American’s Vergelegen wine farm, in the Western Cape, to demonstrate fuel cell capability during the Mining Indaba, in February.

It was diverted from Amplats’ training and heritage centre in Rustenburg for use at COP 17, where Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe interfaced with Ballard Power Systems director Karim Kassam and Amplats engineering head Krish Pillay on the site of the fuel cell generator in Durban, as depicted on the cover of this edition of Mining Weekly.

“Platinum-group metals (PGMs) have for long been used to clean the air and directly influence climate in that regard,” Amplats CEO Neville Nicolau reiterates.

The thrust of the use of PGMs is in autocatalysis, which renders the internal combustion engine efficient in that it produces water and carbon dioxide rather than carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and particulates.

In that form, the emissions of cars can be absorbed by natural plants and converted into oxygen.

“That’s a very important contribution to improving the quality of the planet’s air,” Nicolau reminds.

Then there are platinum-using fuel cells that can be used in their stationary format to generate electricity from relatively small units to large units.

These fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. The heat generated can also be used.
The source of the hydrogen could be from coal-bed methane, which is normally wastefully flared.

A R100-million fund is being used, in conjunction with government and business in South Africa, to create real applications for fuel cells, which differs from the discredited approach of previous Amplats management to talk about fuel cell-driven vehicles being ten years away and repeat the same story over a ten-year period.

The fund has made its first allocation to a US company manufacturing and marketing fuel cell systems in South Africa and sub- Saharan Africa.

While wind power and solar power are promising technologies, they are dependent on the wind blowing and the sun shining. By using a fuel cell alongside these technologies, the power nature provides can be used, in high energy producing times, to create hydrogen and oxygen from water.

The fuel cell can then provide the steady flow of energy from the stored hydrogen.

“By using a fuel cell when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, you have a very energy efficient, environment-friendly way of storing energy and then converting and delivering it to the grid smoothly and over time to match supply with demand,” Nicolau tells Mining Weekly.

This facilitates more decentralised power, particularly for rural communities and makes a significant contribution to providing base-load power.

Executives say that the only impediment to fuel cells playing a baseload role is the current low level of development and the cost per kilowatt hour right now, which is holding it back from playing a bigger role in the baseload space.

“There’re already almost economically viable fuel cell cars [available] that we think are more viable than battery cars.

“A battery car is like a golf cart – you need to recharge it. That takes a long time and it uses grid electricity. You can fill up a fuel cell car at hydrogen pumps, which are being rolled out in California and Germany as we speak.

“You drive a fuel cell car the same as you drive a petrol car, whereas a battery car gives people range anxiety and [has] all sorts of other issues.

We believe that it is important to get the message out there, otherwise batteries will be developed and not fuel cells,” Nicolau tells Mining Weekly.

Some of the R100-million seed money is also being used to develop fuel cells as power sources for cellphone towers.

Amplats intends to be involved in seeing that fuel cells are used across the continent of Africa in conjunction with solar power to avoid the need for expensive grid power.

There is a range of applications as well as significant potential for job creation.

“Fuel cell technology is still expensive and the technology needs to develop. Our view is that fuel cells will become the form of transport in the future, but by developing the technology in its stationary application, you develop a robust technology.

“As the amount of membrane made rises and the sales volumes of fuel cells rise, so the costs come down,” Nicolau says.

Fuel cells currently also use a lot of expensive platinum and the volume used would have to be “thrifted” for the fuel cells to be economically viable in the future.

“From our point of view, what is very important with fuel cells is that the platinum is unsubstitutable. It has to be platinum, and this gives platinum a very real market into the future.

Many of the auto exhaust applications are substitutable with palladium, rhodium and other PGMs, but fuel cells and jewellery are pure platinum markets, which is important for the future of the platinum industry,” Nicolau adds.

An issue that State power utility Eskom has is the poor economics of expanding the national electricity grid into far-flung, sparsely inhabited areas.

It is sometimes said that it costs as much to establish the distribution infrastructure as it does to create the generation of power.

Eskom technology executive Steven Lennon comments that he would prefer to use a battery to do the job that the fuel cell would do and he also expresses concern about the heat danger that hydrogen presents.

Lennon points out that when hydrogen is released from the cylinder storing it, it generates heat, unlike gases such as liquefied petroleum gas, which cools on release.

This is because the hydrogen is used as a gas and not as a liquid.

It is said that 4 kg of hydrogen gas would provide family-size cars with a range of 600 km to 700 km, which is comparable to what drivers are used to, and would perform in virtually the same way as petrol-driven cars in terms of refuelling.

The biggest challenge if the fuel cell takes off would be to access hydrogen at fuel stations or to have on-board conversions to produce hydrogen.

The use of fuel cells to power underground locomotives and miners’ cap lamps is imminent and fuel cells are already being used to charge cellphones.

The fuel cells are seen as being three times more efficient than fossil fuel as providers of electricity.
“I know that the South African government is determined to seize this opportunity,” Carroll said, adding that South Africa could become a global leader in fuel cells.

Fuel cells, which used hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water and heat, could be used in their stationary format, with the source of the hydrogen being coal-bed methane, which could be used to produce water and electricity.

Carroll also pointed out that light emitting diodes used in flat screen television sets, smart phones and laptops used sapphire crystals from iridium crucibles, which was creating additional demand for iridium, a PGM sourced mainly from South Africa.

Minerals Minister Susan Shabangu, who was in the audience, commented to Mining Weekly that Carroll’s comments were fully in line with the policy and strategy of the South African government.

Shabangu added that Carroll’s steps to partner others in fuel cell development had the unique potential of achieving beneficiation and carbon reduction at the same time.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Professor Dr Björn Stigson told the gathering that business had most of the technologies, financial resources and management skills required to deal with climate change, but needed supportive regulatory frameworks from governments to be able to deliver at the scale and speed demanded.

Stigson expressed the hope that COP 17 would advance the public– private partnerships as mechanisms for joint actions between governments and business.

International Chamber of Commerce secretary general Jean-Guy Carrier said that there had been a tremendous amount of global greening progress, even though the progress of official global climate change negotiations was relatively slow.

Carrier said that the founders of the International Chamber of Commerce in 1990 had a vision of business that went well beyond the bottom line.

“Those founders of the International Chamber of Commerce called themselves the merchants of peace – an elegant title, even today,” he said.

Anglo American believes that the thermal coal that the company mines will continue to drive economic development around the world, growing from the current 40% of the global energy source to 43% by 2035.

“We’re not looking at a massive change overnight in some of the developed countries and similarly in the case of China, where 88% of the energy source is coal-related and the projection is that is will come down to less than 70%, but China’s demand is continuing to rise.

“Clearly, coal’s not going away and clearly there’ll be a continuing dependence, and the question is how we think about that and how we also drive some of the other commodities we produce, like platinum, to contribute to the reduction of carbon output and the issue of climate change,” Carroll told Mining Weekly in a media interface at which executives Godfrey Gomwe, Chris Griffith, Norman Mbazima, Seamus French and Nicolau also provided detailed input on the carbon reduction steps being taken throughout the Anglo American group.

Nicolau reports that Amplats has reduced its absolute energy consumption in platinum processing by 15% and increased the volume produced with the lower level of electricity.

Solar-powered housing for many of its 55 000 employees is within municipalities and not mine villages and government has taken the unprecedented step of paying for full-page advertisements in the national media to acknowledge Amplats’ housing schemes, which show the solar cells on the roofs of homes.

Mbazima says that, under any climate change scenario, the use of coal will continue to be on the annual increase for a long time to come.

He says that the world will have to find ways of using coal in a more sustainable way, while at the same time taking into account the hard reality that 1.3-billion people around the world are still without access to electricity.

Using mainly coal-fired power stations to bring most of those people into the electricity fold would probably increase greenhouse gases by only 1%.

The quality of mainly domestic power station coal needs to be improved in order to reduce emissions.

The power stations themselves have to take steps to improve their efficiency from the current global average of 28%.

“If you waved a magic wand and turned all the power stations in the world into super- crucial or ultracritical stations, you would probably halve the amount of greenhouse gases being put into the atmosphere from power generation,” Mbazima says.

The biggest potential abatement was through greater power station efficiency and the final possible measure is to capture the carbon dioxide emerging from power stations and to use it to grow biomass/algae or to capture it and store it underground.

Internally, the company is working to drive operational excellence around operational efficiency and energy use and has invested $180-million in low-carbon technology.

Technologies for carbon capture and storage are proven and what is required is demonstration on a commercial scale, and the company was working with governments around the world to achieve that.

Australia-based French reports that the carbon tax passed in Australia in November will come into effect in July 2012, beginning at $23/t of carbon emitted for three years and transitioning to an emission trading scheme and free-market pricing in 2016.

The notion of carbon pricing is supported in principle as a signal to future liabilities and to incentivise industry and consumers to reduce carbon.

But two major objections are arising to the design of the Australian carbon-pricing scheme. The first is its intention to raise $25-billion in the first the three years and $20-billion for the coal industry in the first eight years, of which the Anglo share will be $2-billion in 2020.

In the first three months, the Australian scheme will raise more than the European Union scheme has raised in its first six years.

“So, it’s very clearly about revenue raising,” French points out.

The second point is that the Australian industry does not allow time for the coal-mining industry to develop emission-reducing technologies.

The two together reduce Australia’s global competitiveness by raising the cost of production for underground coal mines by 7% and reducing the net present value of underground mines by 25%.

Australia’s opposition Liberal party has announced that it will repeal the legislation if it wins the 2013 general election.

Despite the carbon tax, Anglo is developing technology to capture the carbon dioxide from power stations for conversion into biofuels, for which field trials are due next year.

In Chile, Anglo is producing a ton of copper with 40% less water and in South Africa it was producing 25 megalitres of drinking water for 60 000 people and will double that capacity by 2013.

Some of this water will also be supplied to the Kanyisa power project, which will burn discard coal to produce 450 MW of electricity, and, in Australia, $120-million has been invested to enable methane from underground coal mines to generate 75 MW of electricity.

Metals are essential for enabling the lower-carbon economy, as hybrid cars and electric cars that will be driven in the future contain three times the 20 kg to 45 kg of copper used in today’s cars. Moreover, a wind turbine with the capacity of 1 MW incorporates nearly 4 t of copper.

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Stay up to date with the latest news and relevant updates from us.