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SA’s ambitious fuel cell programme is not exactly a catalyst for progress

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Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

SA has committed to achieving ‘a 25% share of the global hydrogen and fuel cell catalysts market with novel platinum group metal (PGM) catalysts’. What might one expect of this initiative?

Today, 8 October, is the fifth occasion that the US is to celebrate Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day. Why that date? Well, the average atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008 and so in US date style 8 October (1008) is Hydrogen Day.

In late September, the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) “agreed to develop a Strategy on a just transition to a low-carbon path of development that takes into account the interests of workers, communities and broader society. This should include such new technologies as fuel cell applications which require platinum group metals (PCM) [sic] which South Africa has in abundance.”

So far so good. What then is a fuel cell? Those who remember school science know that water may be split into hydrogen and oxygen by means of an electric current. A 1.5V torch cell will do. The reverse is also true: if hydrogen and oxygen are combined, electricity and water will be produced. This is the principle of the fuel cell, invented by Welsh judge William Grove, back in 1839.

Producing the two gases is easy; combining them is more difficult, and requires a catalyst, usually platinum. Palladium also does the trick, as will certain polymers. Since the resulting electricity comes from a “clean” process, fuel cells are an obvious replacement for petrol or diesel engines. They have applications for satellites, submarines, smartphones and stationary off-grid power. Hence their relevance to the low carbon future.

The real interest of the NEC arises from the fact that we sit on 75% of global reserves of platinum. We have the metal; we shall beneficiate it into fuel cell technologies; the future of the platinum mines is assured. Unfortunately, this logic is somewhat flawed in that platinum, being a catalyst, is recycled. Moreover, as the technologies have improved, the amount of platinum required is in slow, but steady decline. Worse still, there are non-metal alternatives to platinum (and palladium). Hydrogen fuel cells may still be a competitor to battery technology, but the future for platinum is less certain. Its market price tells us that.

Back in 2008, the Department of Science and Technology set the 2018 stretch target that we would achieve “a 25% share of the global hydrogen and fuel cell catalysts market with novel platinum group metal (PGM) catalysts”. This catalysed a publicly financed research programme through three university Centres of Competence. The 15-year programme has the catchy acronym HySA, and is now in its 10th year. Great expectations have attached to this investment at UCT, UWC and North West University. In 2016/17 the investment was R81-million.

What might one expect of this initiative? In fairness, 10 years of bench work is a short time for the conduct of world-class frontier research, even when the end goal is well-defined. In effect, one also has the lags of set-up, staff recruitment, and bedding down. Furthermore, history teaches that frontier research may simmer for decades before it yields a viable technology. A classic example is Einstein’s 1917 work on stimulated emission of radiation, that was successfully applied to microwaves only 36 years later.

What can one reasonably expect of the less than R1-billion cumulative investment? Compare with the annual R1-billion that went into the now-abandoned nuclear reactor programme, or the annual spend on social sciences and humanities research of R8.4-billion. The annual R81-million allocated to HySA amounts to nano-expenditure.

Caveats aside, one may still ask questions about the research outputs, comparing these to the rest of the world, and to other countries that are conducting similar research. What is found is that our research intensity is below world average, as is the research impact. We lag behind Australia, England and the US.

To compete on the world stage one needs to build larger research teams, that are able to recruit talent wherever it may be. This applies to the foreign doctoral graduates that we produce in the hundreds, but are loath to provide with work permits. And more scientists on task require more space, and equipment, and resources for networking.

Then there is the devil in the detail. From whence cometh the oxygen and hydrogen? Oxygen is all around us, so no problem. But hydrogen, eish. The cleanest source of hydrogen uses hydropower or renewables to split water. Bottle the hydrogen, and away we go. The Grand Inga River hydro station in the DRC could provide hydrogen for all. Little chance of renewables being dramatically expanded here, as government is averse to committing lèsemajesté against King Coal.

In fact, the dirtiest source of hydrogen comes from the synthesis of coal into methane that is then trucked to the fuel cell electricity generator, where the methane is split to yield hydrogen. A really dirty process that has been field-tested here. And the alternative production and use of ammonia as the means of trapping hydrogen for later release is also dirty. As is true for every product, its environmental impact requires a full energy and emission calculus from extraction to installation. Lithium ion battery production also generates dirt.

The 25% target beckons, for which political advocacy is great. Thank you, NEC. Turning that advocacy into a real platinum card is clearly for the long haul. Happy H2 Day. DM

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