Fuel Cell Developments in South Africa

Despite our great eco-resources like the Kruger National Park, South Africa still lags behind in advanced technology. However, efforts to catch up with the developed countries is moving quickly as many international groups and governments are volunteering and investing in local talent and resources. One of the 2012 plans was announced by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, just recently. This is the development of plants to mining and processing of titanium and platinum for use in fuel cells for mobile phones, proving that technological development is much more about practical applications rather than games and trivialities.

A local company has already begun selling platinum fuel cells to home-grown companies in the mobile phone industry. Fuel cells are being used instead of batteries to power cars and any device that needs electricity. Daimler-Chrysler and Ford are using fuel cells already for certain models. They generate electricity and are very quiet unlike batteries. It also eliminates the need for moving parts since it uses an electrochemical reaction to power up a device or car. More importantly, it makes it unnecessary to charge the car or device and can run indefinitely as long as it has fuel. In order for fuel cells to work, it needs platinum or titanium as the catalyst.

The benefits of using fuel cells are lower costs and maintenance is easier. It is also good for the environment since it lowers the emission and carbon dioxide in cars to almost negligible amounts. It is expected that eventually fuel cells will also be used for homes and buildings to replace boilers and power supplies.

The smaller fuel cells will be used also to power computers, mobile phones, generators, tablets, and laptops. The prototype was introduced way back in 2005. It has yet to fully replace batteries because of the cost of producing fuel cells and resistance from battery manufacturers.

The pilot plants are expected to jumpstart a new industry for the country as the demand for cheaper fuel cells in the international market is tremendous. According to Minister Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s rich resources are perfect for the government’s program of “promoting development at home.” In other words, investment in energy is as good as buying repossessed homes in terms of guaranteed return on investment.

The company that will be assembling and manufacturing the platinum fuel cells is Clean Energy, a local South African company which partnered with an American group, the Anglo American Platinum and Altergy Power Systems. The first experimental batch of 18 platinum fuel cells is now being tested by Vodacom.

Two other companies are expected to also get into the fuel cell industry because of their experience in working with platinum. These are the HySA and HySA Systems which has just signed a partnership with a foreign private business party. Their target is to market their fuel cells to international companies.

Titanium, on the other hand, is being developed by the Department of Science and Technology for use in metal mill products. By turning titanium into powder form, the country can begin to sell it as this demand is also growing faster than current supplies can keep up with. Currently it is a R3.5 billion business but it could reach as much as R30 billion if the industry is guided properly.

Since South Africa is the world’s 2nd larger producer of titanium mineral ore, the government plans to add titanium metal powder as a new product to be manufactured in the country. South Africa is intent on learning from the mistakes of other developing countries like India, which exported much of its raw materials and minerals. Thus, India was never really able to benefit fully from its resources since it sold its natural resources at extremely low prices to Japan.