The term “hydrogen economy” was first coined in 1970, reportedly by electrochemist John Bockris during a talk at General Motors. The vision of non-polluting hydrogen fuel cell transport meeting the world’s needs still seems a long way off. However, there are signs of renewed interest in hydrogen more generally, including as part of the energy mix in Africa.
Hydrogen can potentially provide a solution to a number of issues and is now being seen as a technology that may be relevant to countries with low electricity grid penetration, including African jurisdictions. Increasing amounts of intermittent renewable energy generation (which is a policy objective of many countries) can give rise to mismatches between supply and demand for electricity. Despite cost reductions, batteries remain expensive for large scale application and provide limited storage durations. However, excess energy can be converted to hydrogen, stored and then used to generate electricity at a later point in time.
Hydrogen can also be a useful alternative to oil for electricity generation. This ENGIE presentation gives an interesting overview of this potential model: click here for a video. Fuel cells can also be used to power vehicles as an alternative to petrol or diesel. A fuel cell-powered train has recently been tested in Germany. Japan is increasingly committing to hydrogen vehicles as well as micro combined heat and power (CHP) in buildings. Over 95% of the world’s 190,000 buildings which are currently heated with hydrogen-based fuel cell micro CHPs are located in Japan.
The hydrogen and fuel cell economy is currently estimated to amount to €1.4 Bn/year.
Africa can be a key part of the hydrogen value chain. As a starting point., hydrogen fuel cells rely on platinum, an important resource for South Africa, which holds 80% of the world’s platinum and where potentially the world’s biggest platinum mine is soon to be developed.
Building on these synergies, in 2016 a prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station was unveiled in South Africa at Impala Refining Services in Springs, near Johannesburg. Unlike electric forklift trucks, hydrogen forklifts can be quickly refilled and don’t need to spend time recharging. This development was the result of a collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology through the HySA Systems Centre of Competence and Impala Platinum (Implats). The development is seen as a means of economic development, sustainable job creation and social good. Using hydrogen fuel cells can reduce ventilation requirements and heat, noise levels and noxious emissions when mining underground.
Vodafone is also seeking to use fuel cells to avoid problems it has had with African power outages and lack of grid infrastructure. Mobile cell phone sites which are too remote for mains power have traditionally relied on diesel on-site generation. Vodafone is keen to reduce the use of diesel in order to reduce emissions. Diesel generation is also noisy and smelly, which limits where it can be used. Using solar as an alternative is not always an option, even in urban environments. Hydrogen fuel cells offer a solution to these problems.
Hydrogen can also be used to generate electricity for buildings, reducing the threat of power blackout. The Cape Flats Nature Reserve building at the University of the Western Cape runs on hydrogen, without causing pollution or noise.
Although hydrogen typically has to be manufactured, there are reports of naturally occurring hydrogen wells in Mali. In July 2015, the Petroma Company is reported to have demonstrated how hydrogen gas can be used to generate power, by lighting up part of the village of Bourakebougouin with hydrogen found when digging a water well. This has created almost 100% clean electricity in a rural area that did not previously have access to electricity.
The Hydrogen Council, whose members include AngloAmerican, aims to accelerate investment in the development and commercialisation of the hydrogen and fuel cell sectors. It may be that this global initiative helps to solve some uniquely African challenges, and allows African nations to “leapfrog” existing technologies in order to meet their energy and transportation needs.