At first glance, the Cape Flats Nature Reserve building at the University of the Western Cape doesn’t seem exceptional.
The modest two-storey structure hosts office space and utility rooms for the six staff who care for the plants and animals living in the 30-hectare reserve.
But the building is a major milestone in South Africa’s struggle to ease its dependence on fossil fuels. It runs on hydrogen, an infinitely renewable fuel that, when used to generate power, produces no emissions apart from water and heat.
The building’s electricity is supplied by a prototype hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) power generator that was launched in November by the university’s Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Systems Centre of Competence.
Developed in collaboration with local heating-technology company Hot Platinum, the generator is a testament to South Africa’s advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology.
In a country struggling with blackouts, energy shortages, high tariffs and years of under-investment in power infrastructure, it offers the hope that hydrogen could be an answer to South Africa’s search for reliable alternative energy sources.
No emissions, no noise
“The generator produces electricity in an environmentally friendly way, without pollution or noise,” said Piotr Bujlo, leader of the generator project and a technology specialist at HySA Systems.
Fuel cells are already used to power vehicles and provide power in remote or inaccessible places, including on space capsules and satellites.
Researchers at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) hope that their work on hydrogen fuel cell innovations may help with the global quest to cut reliance on fossil fuels, as well as helping with South Africa’s own attempts to give more of its population access to electricity.
According to HySA Systems, its new generator can be used anywhere where a maximum 2.5 kilowatts of electricity is required. It has an advantage over nuclear power or coal power in that hydrogen can be produced on-site – using a water electrolyser – which means there is no need to pipe or truck the fuel in from somewhere else.
“The generator is highly competitive in places where there is no grid,” Bujlo said.
Hydrogen fuel cells take the energy produced by a chemical reaction in the presence of a catalyst – such as platinum – and convert it into useable electrical power, with only water vapour and heat as by-products.
As energy-storage devices, they work much like batteries except that while batteries store all of their chemicals inside, and eventually go dead, fuel cells have a constant flow of chemicals.
“Hydrogen is the most abundant gas in the universe, so with HFC systems the energy is inexhaustible,” said Bruno Pollet, director of HySA Systems.
The generator systems used in the HySA project are almost entirely South African designed and produced, apart from the fuel cells. Pollet says the next generation of HySA technologies will be 100 percent locally developed.
HySA Systems and Hot Platinum are currently installing and testing a new version of the fuel-cell system for domestic use, with hope of having it ready to demonstrate in 2015.
The generator is one of the many innovations that have been developed under South Africa’s National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development and Innovation Strategy launched in 2007, a programme aimed at exploring the feasibility of using fuel cell technology for decentralising energy.
Cosmas Chiteme, director of alternative energy at the government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), said the government is investing in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies with the hopes of building on South Africa’s reputation in the field.
“The intention is to create the critical knowledge and human resources capacity to enable the development of high-value commercial activities,” he said.
Private sector interest
The DST has so far invested $40 million (450 million rand) in its hydrogen-energy strategy. Using $17 million (194 million rand) to date, the University of the Western Cape’s HySA project has so far produced a range of innovations, including South Africa’s first hydrogen-powered tricycle, scooter, and golf cart, along with the country’s first fuel-cell component manufacturing line.
The private sector has been paying attention. In September, HySA Systems joined a project with European airline manufacturer Airbus and the National Aerospace Centre to work on understanding how hydrogen fuel cells might perform when subjected to the harsh and varying environmental conditions in which commercial aircraft operate.
But, according to HySA Systems director Pollet, before hydrogen energy can become more widely available, decision makers need to be persuaded of its benefits.
“Hydrogen fuel cells could be commercially available in South Africa as soon as the local industry, government departments and other stakeholders see the benefits of the technology: low cost, high efficiency, clean performance,” he said.
But first, “I think they need to be educated about the technology.”
(Reporting by Munyaradzi Makoni; editing by Laurie Goering)