South Africa has huge ‘green fuels’ potential

But it needs to act now.
Sasol is in an advantageous position. Will it make the right moves? Image: Waldo Swiegers, Bloomberg

South Africa needs to seriously start thinking about shifting its energy focus. This is for two reasons.

The first is that the country’s important exports – coal and platinum – face potential collapse with the imminent shift of global energy markets. A number of factors are driving this.

The move away from vehicles powered by petrol and diesel to ones powered by electric batteries is gathering pace. Two-thirds of the demand for platinum depends on combustion engines where it is used for the hardening of spark plug tips and in vehicle exhaust auto-catalysts.

The second major reason that the country needs to refocus its energy situation is there’s a major switch from coal to renewables underway in the world. And South Africa itself can’t continue its current levels of dependency on coal. South Africa is the 14th largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and on a per capita basis, the 10th largest emitter. It leads the pack in Africa, and already faces considerable environmental issues in Mpumalanga, where state energy provider Eskom’s coal fired power stations and Sasol’s coal-to-liquid plant are located.

Sasol and Eskom account for more than 50% of the country’s carbon emissions.

It can address both these challenges by pursuing a feasible solution waiting to be exploited. The country could make use of its natural comparative advantages in wind and solar power to generate electricity. By linking these accessible resources to technologies such as Fischer-Tropsch, it’s in an ideal position to open another chapter in export-led economic development.

The Fischer-Tropsch technology was developed to exploit coal by converting the mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen – produced by heating coal at high temperature in a process known as gasification – to liquid fuels. The process was introduced into South Africa in the 1950s to reduce the country’s reliance on imported oil. Sasol is now a global leader in the technology and has more experience than any other company in the conversion of hydrocarbon gas to liquid fuels.

Moving in this direction also presents a golden opportunity for South Africa to transition from being a key contributor to global warming to becoming a key contributor to global emissions reductions.

The technology

South Africa can use its supply of solar and wind to produce hydrogen from water in a process known as hydrolysis. A cheap and reliable source of hydrogen is essential for the production of green fuels. To date, this technology has been too expensive. But advances in fuel cells have made large-scale hydrogen production cheaper and more accessible. More importantly, if the hydrogen is made with renewable energy, it is a “green” feedstock.

The green hydrogen can then be combined with carbon, captured from existing flue gas or from the air, to make liquid fuels and petrochemicals using Fischer-Tropsch technology. The present Sasol technology relies on coal as the source of carbon and is unsustainable. The possible innovation – which South Africa is in a prime position to exploit – will be to combine green carbon with green hydrogen to make liquid fuel.

There are substantial export opportunities for such “green” fuels and petrochemicals. This market could generate export revenue to replace lost revenues from declining coal and platinum exports.

The green hydrogen could also substitute fertiliser and explosives imports. About 60% of South Africa’s fertiliser is presently imported. The hydrogen could be combined with nitrogen from the air to make ammonia using the well-established Haber process, and the ammonia then converted firstly to ammonium nitrate and then to fertiliser and explosives.

The hydrogen step undertaken with fuel cells would create local demand for platinum because the metal is used as the catalyst in hydrogen fuel cells. In addition, the renewable power stations could provide cheap power to supplement Eskom’s constrained supply.

These new industries would have two knock-on effects: they would create jobs and the would move the country towards zero carbon emissions.

The jet fuel opportunity

One of the “green fuels” that has huge potential is jet fuel.

The aviation industry is under intense pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels and reduce its emissions. This isn’t surprising. The total global market for aviation fuel is about $300 billion and air travel accounts for 2.5% of the global carbon emissions. This is equivalent to 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This value could triple by 2050 and consume 25% of the global carbon budget.

This demand could be replaced entirely by the advent of green liquid fuels, produced from green hydrogen and carbon captured from the atmosphere.

The market for green aviation fuel is an attractive possibility for South Africa. To date, a viable solution has not been possible. Now, this outlook has changed with the possibility of fuel-cell hydrogen and technologies for carbon capture.

Three other technologies also matter: wind and solar power, as well as Fischer Tropsch technology. These are all well established in South Africa. The country’s renewable power bidding rounds have shown wind and solar power to be the lowest cost source of power. And Sasol has been operating Fischer Tropsch reactors for over 50 years.

Unfortunately, South Africa’s public-funded research and development efforts have been directed mainly into how to use hydrogen, instead of how to make hydrogen. It has been focused on using hydrogen to beneficiate platinum (processing it to enhance its properties) for vehicle fuel cells instead of concentrating on finding a commercial source of hydrogen which could be used in multiple applications. For its part, Sasol has made a substantial research and development effort, but it is not looking at lowering the costs of hydrolysis.

Government should shift the focus of research and development spending in partnership with Sasol to tackle this challenge and open a new cleaner, greener chapter in South Africa’s history.

Internationally several pilot facilities are in construction or are being planned. But they don’t have South Africa’s natural advantage in wind and solar resources. Nor do they have South Africa’s experience with Fischer Tropsch technology.

Looking ahead

South Africa has key ingredients it should be exploiting to fill an export gap, and to reduce emissions. It should seize a first-mover advantage.

But will the South African government and Sasol make the necessary moves? Given the potential for local employment, rescuing the platinum industry, reducing the country’s carbon emissions and earning much needed foreign exchange, it seems a logical decision.The Conversation

David Richard Walwyn, professor of Technology Management, University of Pretoria and Rod Crompton, adjunct professor African Energy Leadership Centre Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Now for the facts:

” South Africa can use its supply of solar and wind to produce hydrogen from water in a process known as hydrolysis. A cheap and reliable source of hydrogen is essential for the production of green fuels. To date, this technology has been too expensive. But advances in fuel cells have made large-scale hydrogen production cheaper and more accessible”.

Don’t be ridiculous. First of all never begin sentences with conjunctions (but). Secondly fuel cells don’t produce hydrogen, they consume it and produce electricity.

Secondly rescuing the platinum industry is fanciful. If all ICE engines were converted to run on fuel cells the (vehicle) demand for platinum would be 15% of what it currently is for spark plugs and exhaust catalysts.

Thirdly expecting the ANC regime to successfully drive any such initiative is tantamount to believing that your pet cat is possessed by aliens from the planet Zog.

Planet ZORG !!!!!

Casper1. Correct. My apologies. I spoke to the cat this morning and she set me straight. It’s Zorg.

Look the typical professor in La-La Land talks..

“South Africa’s natural advantage in wind and solar resources”.. oh and how do we pay for the technologies needed?

SA needs to borrow euros and dollars to pay the first world countries for these no?

Get real, use all our natural resources including methane, coal and uranium

Our thinking in South Africa is so slow, we are running backwards, by the time we realize the platinum wonder-era is over, the rest of the world will be 100 laps ahead.
Escom will be redundant by the time the government has “fixed” it. We only have dirt to sell to the world, and the need for raw materials is changing very very fast.

Look – the Guavament will not do anything because they cannot. Unless Sasol does it no one else here will.
I do wonder if it will be profitable though – If so why are companies like Sasol not doing something already??

We have got this huge potential in South Africa. We have the combination of the best financial system, a healthy banking system, an abundance of mineral wealth, a high supply of sun and wind projects to solve our electricity issues, very capable scientists, some of the best managers and entrepreneurs, an untapped workforce, relatively good infrastructure and a relatively stable constitutional democracy. Everything that is required for economic growth seems to be in place. What prevents the many capable and willing entrepreneurs from developing these opportunities for the benefit of the country?

Three letters are the spanner in the works – ANC. Citizens prefer to stay unemployed and poor. They vote for unemployment and poverty. The citizens are transforming our economy and infrastructure to resemble the example they grew up with – the overgrazed and undeveloped rural homelands and the squalor of squatter camps. The ANC is the great equaliser, not through improvement but deterioration.

The factors of economic growth, the level of sophistication of infrastructure, the efficiency of service delivery, the availability of medical services and medicine, the quality of education and the quality of life of citizens are merely the manifestations of the mindset of the average voter.

Now we understand why, in this modern age, amid the availability of many intelligent, ethical and capable people, we still have a Gwede Mantshe, an Ace Magashule and a Jessy Duarte calling the shots. The average voter uses these individuals as tools to transform his reality into a manifestation of his own mindset.

Why are the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, Australians and others not doing it? The answer is simple, it is not profitable! I think the naughty professor would like to be funded to do this “research” and waste millions of taxpayers money in the process. Nuclear power is the way to go; cheap, proven and plenty of nuclear experts in many of our trading partner countries.

The US is not doing it because they have invested in fracking plants. Japan builds cars not energy plants. The Aussies are fighting fires. Russia and France are not doing it because they over invested in nuclear. China builds anything they put their minds to.

Let’s not shoot this idea down. It could be a good fit with the history and environment we have.

Fischer Tropsch is the better of a century old german tech that most other countries consider too inefficient. It uses energy in the conversion process than the output energy of the resultant fuel.

Hydrolysis is fairly similar energy imbalance. It takes more energy to make than it it yields. That is OK if you are using 60c/kWh input energy to make a product that is worth 100c/kWh and losing 20c in the cost of production. Coin-toss and not game changer.

Instead of pipe dream synthetic hydrocarbon, maybe we should make 80GW of roughly 60c/kWh wind and solar into enormous flow batteries (that need our platinum and vanadium btw) and take this country out of loadshed and dirty electricity.

These battery plants could be built at micro level (one per suburb) or at macro level in each province. Is there someone that could build a business plan?

I’m sure Eskom would allow their cables to be used for distribution if they get revenue for doing nothing extra. Anything to make their current pain go away.

Don’t speak to Gwede or Pravin, speak to Eskom directly.

@ NewYork, Re: prices of electricity from several technologies.
First of all read my comments below
Electricity from newly built nuclear plants :R 1.60-R 2.80/kWh
The price of nuclear powered electricity is not low. France has a 72% nuclear powered grid, the highest in the world. Household electricity is 17 euro cts, industrial power 10cts/kWh, more or less in the middle of the range of power prices in Europe acc to official EU stats.
The French companies EDF and Areva have an enormous experience with nuclear, and are building quite a few new nuclear stations, in Finland, the UK and Fr itself. All total disasters, especially financially.
I am not in principle against nuclear, it could be a very good companion to renewables with steady electricity production, but facts speak for themselves.

I think a good indicator of the SA problem is when “The leader” addresses his people (The ANC voter) he uses a tone of voice more frequently used in the rest of the world to speak to children. He has to repeat things many times from different angles to try and ensure it is clear what he means. He has to always give them good news.

I am not joking. Go and look at it and compare to when he addresses the rest of the nation on TV.

Vast difference. What does it mean though?

We all know that with hydrolysis, your input energy is more than what you get out. However, what the writer attempted to point out, is that, in order to create “cheap” input energy, load a couple of solar panels, and manufacture your hydrogen (through hydrolysis) by that means.


I get that (when you have surplus renewables or for that matter 2AM in the morning when you have surplus baseload coal). The problems are:

1. The conversion losses.
2. The issues with distribution of hydrogen – Hindenberg.
3. If your need is electric you will again require power system to turn the hydrogen into electricity so extra capex. Hydrogen is better as a combustion source.

Hydrogen makes great sense in a hub and spoke need : eg hydrogen bus fleet that burns hydrogen instead of diesel and get replenished at a central depot. Small scale electric fuel cells are not presently viable.

I worked for Sasol, and I like to think of myself as a practical chemical engineer. Let me tell you, this is la-la land stuff. Our dear MBA professors like to make these extraordinary claims that look and sound good to a layman, but in essence this is not practical, feasible or justifiable (economically or technically!). It is like saying all Eskom needs to do to fix the energy crisis is build more power plants. Thanks genius, why didn’t I think of that?

Look at Germanies power strategy, you will soon learn that they, and most of Europe are moving away from Fossil Fuels, and Nuclear, and aiming for 80% renewable by2050…2019 they hit 40% power production from renewables. SA’s 5% renewable base, is far behind, and unfortunately is not competitive…

The concept of baseload is not an issue anymore, and it has been proven, that a diverse mix of wind and solar, and some hydro storage, can provide power continuously, and effectively, over a large geographic region, such as SA has, so that when it is cloudy in West, it is sunny in East, when the wind blows in east, it is sunny in west, etc…very simplified but proven to be effective…and yes, liquid flow batteries for balanced local demand is definitely a game changer for security of supply…Some talk of Continental Distribution networks, where then 100% renewable can work…

China, an even more intense and large scale energy intensive economy >> same strategy, where they are installing 20 000MW of renewables every year…and is now sitting on 200 000MW of wind alone… this is 5 times more power than the whole of SA consumes…

SA, as a small power consumer and producer, in the bigger picture, should be able to leverage the capacity of the world to quickly install new capacity, and then leverage the benefits of the power – not to worry about who benefits from the initial construction bids, it is long term legacy gains here we need…secure cheap and beneficial power to grow the economy…

When it comes down to the efficiency of the power produced versus the input (production,mining and transport costs), and operation costs…Renewables outperform fossil fuels in the operational costs, and now since 2017, in the cost to install…

SA could be a major exporter of renewable power to the whole of SADC region, if we just wake up and install excessive amounts of renewables, and this will attract more Foreign direct investment from manufacturing as well, as they will be attracted to clean cheap and abundant power which will reduce their cost of manufacturing, when combined to our already cheap (albeit predominantly unskilled) labour force…

It is darkest before the dawn, so lets rise up and go Green SA…most likey without ESKOM as we know it, but with 100’s of new competitive power producers, if government allows…all able to generate and supply a regional distribution grid (also linked indirectly to national grid), linked to customers…

Germany has started decommissioning 23 nuclear power stations over the next two years .I wonder what they will use instead ?

End of comments.





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