MOBILE telecoms coverage in remote rural areas could be set to explode with the launch of field trials of a new hi-tech power plant that utilises the latest in hydrogen fuel-cell technology.
The technology uses ordinary ammonia to extract hydrogen as a fuel source to efficiently power cell phone towers that have no access to main grid electricity. The science could revolutionise the alternative energy solutions market in the telecommunications industry worldwide.
Currently, it is estimated that 130 000 remote area towers are going up each year globally, at a growing rate of more than 6%. This US$9.2 billion market is concentrated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America.
According to auditing and business advisory firm Ernst & Young, the telecoms market in Africa alone is forecast to grow faster than any other region.
Ernst & Young says the telecommunications market in Africa is becoming increasingly competitive and that as competition increased, operational efficiency will take on greater importance for telecommunications operators.
The latest hydrogen-from-ammonia fuel technology currently undergoing field tests is holding out the promise of 25% savings and total equipment cost recovery within two years.
Conducted by UK-based Diverse Energy and leading South African industrial gases company Afrox, the first field trials are taking place in a remote area of Namibia.
Robert Carlton-Shields, Afrox Business Manager, special products and chemicals says, “Coverage in remote areas is very patchy and not cost effective at present due to the need to power telecom towers using diesel generators, with all the inherent logistical and environmental emission issues on top.”
“What we are trailing with Diverse Energy is their PowerCube proprietary ammonia cracker integrated system, which produces hydrogen for fuel cells. This compact energy source will replace polluting diesel generators, delivering higher efficiency and lower fuel and maintenance costs, while offering a 25% reduction in total cost of ownership over its five-year life, with a two-year return on investment.”
And with the ammonia readily available from Afrox 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.
“Ammonia is a cheap fuel with high power density,” says Afrox chemicals product manager Jaco Coetzee. “So hydrogen from ammonia dissociation would be the preferred option for small plants like PowerCube. Millions of tons of ammonia are produced and distributed worldwide every year and the procedures for safe handling have long been since developed and proven, making ammonia as a fuel source for use in rural areas perfect for Africa.”
Recognition of the PowerCube technology is growing rapidly, testament to which was it being named as the winner the prestigious 2009 UK Government Innovation Award for the ‘Next Big Thing’. This led directly to the current Afrox / Diverse Energy field trials being part-funded by the UK Government’s Technology Strategy Board.
The provision of cell phone communications is seen as an important enabler for new business development in rural regions and as capable of providing a boost to poverty reduction measures. By lowering the total cost of ownership of rural off-grid cell phone towers, such expansion programmes can be accelerated, says Carlton-Shields.
Having completed tests with Motorola in the UK, a trial in Africa has been initiated with three telecoms operators in three different climatic zones involving 25 PowerCubes to prove its capabilities in Africa.
“These telecoms operators have the chance to trial the system at a cost no higher than our forward projected sales price, allowing operators to get substantial first mover advantage and experience the benefits of the PowerCube without having to fund the full cost of a trial,” says Alastair Livesey, operations director at Diverse Energy.
“Its adoption will bring many benefits when compared with diesel and solar panel power, 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.”
The PowerCube has by-products of about one litre an hour of highly purified water, which can be used for medical purposes, and 30 kilograms of fertiliser every three months. Livesey says those quantities are too small for operators to sell, so they can be used to help local rural communities instead.
“This is a low cost, environmentally-friendly solution for power in rural areas without access to electricity,” says Afrox’s Carlton-Shields. “It will significantly expand Afrox’s customer base and lower the cost of ammonia in the emerging markets in Africa, where it is traditionally used in fertiliser and refrigeration.
“This project will revolutionise the telecoms industry in Africa and marks the start of Afrox becoming an alternate fuels company as well as a supplier of specialist gases, chemicals and welding equipment.”