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Platinum power arrives in SA

Africa’s first 100kW platinum fuel cell installed at the Chamber of Mines.

Africa’s first 100 kilowatt (kW) platinum fuel cell, installed at the Chamber of Mines of South Africa (COMSA), could be the first major milestone towards creating a new platinum beneficiation industry in South Africa while, simultaneously, solving the country’s electricity woes. Due to become operational later this month, the fuel cell will reduce the COMSA’s reliance on Eskom by supplying 80kW to the building, covering more than its base load demand (60kW).

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen fuel from city pressure natural gas (provided by eGoli gas) and oxygen from the air to create electricity, heat and water (as a by-product). They have no moving parts and operate without combustion making them quieter, cleaner and more efficient than internal combustion engines (e.g. generators) which extract electricity from the fuel they burn. Fuel cells are not a new idea, however. The first hydrogen fuel cell car was developed in in 1991, and the technology is currently being used in 5kW back-up systems for telecommunications towers.

The R7.5 million installation at the COMSA was born from an initiative – between COMSA, the Industrial Development Company (IDC), the Department of Trade and Industry, and local energy firm Mitochondria Energy Company and eGoli Gas – to showcase the feasibility of a small- to medium-scale energy application for platinum full cell technology. Thereafter, the plan is to create a market it throughout Africa and later develop a local production and servicing industry.

The unit installed at the COMSA was made in Japan.

Speaking to Moneyweb, Jeannette Hofsajer-van Wyk, head of Information Systems at the COMSA and who spearheaded the project, said she had not only been looking for an alternative energy solution that would provide the chamber with electricity whenever the Eskom grid was down, but one that also made sense financially.

“It had to be commercially viable…And, theoretically, we’re looking at feeding back into the grid after hours so that the city can use it to supply residences when we’re not at work. But that’s still under negotiation,” she said.

In the 12 months to March 2014, the chamber’s electricity bill was R1.2 million.

Anthea Bath, CEO of Mitochondria, said the company had calculated the cost over a 15-year term (minimum plant life of a fuel cell) and found that, assuming a 10% annual escalation on electricity prices, the fuel cell was cheaper relative to the cost of relying entirely on the Eksom grid for that period.

“The capital costs of a fuel cell are higher in terms of dollars-per-kilowatt than other technologies because it’s in the early stages of its commercialisation. But in terms of total cost over the total life of the project, it’s cheaper, keeping in mind that COMSA would still need power from Eskom grid during peak period. All that was considered when calculating the costs,” said Bath.

Mitochondria is the company tasked with driving the penetration generator which acts as back up. A fuel cell acts as both back up and a primary source partnered with international fuel cell technology providers and is responsible for the engineering, procurement, installation, commissioning , maintenance and commercialization of the COMSA fuel cell unit.

COMSA’s project, dubbed the ‘Platinum Power Fuel Cell’, will be launched late next month

Electricity security

“At the core, this project is about beneficiation but, at the same time, we want to take the lead in terms of looking at alternative energy sources…Can you imagine if the premier of Gauteng decided that for every hospital in this province there would be a fuel cell. Then we would never hear of the horrible stories we hear when there is load shedding and the generators don’t kick in,” said Zingaphi Matanzimba, communications head of the COMSA.

Fuel cells are nowhere near being applicable for private residences as the cost is too high. But for goverments and big businesses, they could be a revelation. Bath says a fuel cell plant can be installed to meet energy requirements ‘up to the multi-megawatt level’ as it is only a matter of adding more fuel cell units to generate more power. And, given that it takes approximately three months for an installation like COMSA’s, there’s an opportunity for companies struggling with electricity security as Eskom battles to keep the lights on.

Beneficiation

With about 70% of new platinum in the world coming from South Africa, the case for beneficiation is unquestionable.

The DTI plans to invest in catalytic Special Economic Zones (SEZs) nationally and, more specifically, the Patinum Valley SEZ the North West Province

Initiai feasibility studies by the Incentive Development And. Administration Division at the DTI found that there could be global growth in stationary fuel cells of between 35% and 45% per annum until 2022, driving the anticipated reduction in average unit prices by more than 90% over this period

“But you must understand that all that is based on a whole a range of assumptions….for example, it will depend on a rapid uptake of the stationary fuel cells units; Also, the regulatory environment would have to be supportive in terms of driving demand. There will also have to be an infrastructure for the hydrogen gas necessary for the technology to work and, right now, South Africa a long way from achieving that,” said the director of SEZ Investor Project and Technical Advisory at the DTI, Hawie Viljoen.

Impala Platinum (Implats), however, is excited about the fuel cell technology and is already exploring possible applications.

Implats group executive of technical services Martyn Fox says the company is currently considering signing a service level contract for the provision of fuel cell derived power for the company’s Springs-based refineries to bring down the average cost of current electricity consumption, as well as for the provision of emergency back-up power.

“Implats is also involved with an initiative with a South African University for the integration of a fuel cell into an operating forklift with novel hydrogen delivery. A significant programme of integrating fuel cells into underground mining equipment is in progress with the opportunity to significantly enhance the mine ventilation requirements,” said Fox

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