Platinum fuel cell trials in S Africa

Renewable Energy mag reports Canadian fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems and Anglo American Platinum, the world’s largest primary producer of platinum, have launched a field trial of a methanol-fueled fuel cell home generator system in an off-grid residential application in South Africa.

Rural field trial

Ballard and AA Platinum have partnered with South African power utility Eskom and the SA Department of Energy to conduct the 12-month field trial.

The trial is being conducted in the rural community of Naledi Trust, identified by the SA Department of Energy as a suitable site, without access to grid power. Naledi Trust is part of the Moqhaka Local Municipality, in the southern part of the Fezile Dabi District of the central Free State province.

Fuel cells are a national opportunity

Platinum-based fuel cells provide a significant economic and environmental development opportunity for South Africa, by facilitating the provision of clean, reliable and cost-effective power. As a result, last year the South African government made a commitment of investment funding to support home generator field trials, reinforcing support for the country’s fuel cell industry.

‘This field trial will provide valuable insight into the market requirements of off-grid communities,’ says Andrew Hinkly, Anglo American Platinum’s Executive Head of Marketing. ‘The fuel cell product has significant market potential in South Africa and the rest of Africa. When commercialised, these products will provide an opportunity to create jobs in South Africa.’

Fuel cells in a micro-grid

The trial utilises Ballard’s commercially proven 5 kW ElectraGen™-ME polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell system, integrated by Anglo American Platinum into a complete prototype off-grid solution, including a battery bank and inverter operating within a micro-grid.

The system is designed to provide a total of 15 kW of fuel cell-generated electric power, and can generate peak power of 70 kW with the support of batteries.

This configuration will power the 34 rural homes in the Naledi Trust community. Monthly delivery of liquid methanol fuel to an external storage tank will enable uninterrupted primary power to these homes.

The field trial is intended to validate the technical and operating requirements of a fuel cell home generator product for off-grid applications in South Africa. Other important factors also being assessed include the logistics of fuel delivery, rural consumer electricity usage patterns, and ongoing product maintenance requirements.

Platinum beneficiation

‘A number of manufacturing and service jobs can be created from this initiative, providing an opportunity for export of value-added products to other emerging markets,’ says Godfrey Oliphant, Deputy Minister of South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources.

‘This will create a new technology sector in the country,’ continues Oliphant. ‘It also, significantly, supports the South African beneficiation strategy by creating additional platinum demand of up to 7500 ounces over 15 years through the creation of a new market.’

‘Access to reliable, low-cost and clean electricity is a vital component of the social and economic well-being of our community,’ adds Moqhaka Executive Mayor, Justice Mareka. ‘We are pleased the Naledi Trust community has been selected as part of this trial programme for the fuel cell home generator.’

Fuel cell technology development

In parallel with the 12-month field trial, ongoing development work at Ballard will continue on a new lower-cost methanol fuel reformer and a longer-life PEM fuel cell stack for a commercial version of the home generator, under a Product Development Agreement signed with Anglo American Platinum and announced in 2012.

‘In addition to being a catalyst for growth of off-grid residential applications, successful development of a commercial home generator product is also expected to offer cost reduction benefits for the ElectraGen™-ME methanol-fueled systems used in commercial telecom backup power applications,’ says Karim Kassam, Vice President of Business Development at Ballard.

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