20 July 2004
South Africa’s rich platinum reserves could make it a key player in a major future energy source – fuel cell technology. At least, that’s the perspective of some. Others argue that fuel cells won’t quite spell a platinum paradise, but could be used productively in a combination of next-generation energy solutions.
With increasing pressure on the West to clean up its act, and to wean itself off oil in favour of more environmentally friendly energy sources, fuel cells – which consume only hydrogen and oxygen, with water as the by-product – are being explored as a possible replacement.
Some go so far as to say that this has the potential to make South Africa the new Saudi Arabia.
The global market for fuel cells and hydrogen technologies is forecast to be potentially worth US$46-billion by 2011.
In April, US President George Bush announced that his department of energy had selected partners to fund new hydrogen research projects totalling some $350-million.
Locally, Anglo Platinum, South Africa’s largest platinum producer, has started investing in the development of hydrogen technology, and has acquired a 17.5% stake in Johnson Matthey, one of the leading researchers in the platinum market.
Platinum is used in fuel cell technology – battery-like devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity. To work, they require platinum electrode catalysts, which are expensive.
Because of its abundance and simple chemical structure, hydrogen can be extracted in almost limitless quantities, and is therefore, on the face of it, a far more practical alternative to oil than wind, water or sun.
Another benefit of fuel cells is that they generate electricity with very little pollution.
Fuel cells a long way off
But despite the potential that fuel cell technology holds, everyday use is a long way off. Impala Platinum, the world’s number two producer of the metal, sees at least another 10 years of research and development before commercial use becomes viable.
Current technology is inadequate for use in a wide range of vehicles – and more research is needed to develop the necessary hydrogen storage capacity to power a car for more than four or five hundred kilometres.
As a result, South Africa has no immediate plans to produce fuel cells on a large scale, and is still predominantly a primary exporter of the world’s most precious metal.
Experts say the future will probably hold a combination of internal combustion engines with fuel cells acting as auxiliary power units, powering things like car lights, windows and air conditioning.