Hydrogen key to rebuilding the South African economy

  • The 39th steering committee meeting of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE), currently chaired by South Africa, was held in Pretoria last week.

South Africa’s abundance of minerals, particularly platinum group metals (PGMs), gives it an advantage in the global transition to net-zero carbon emissions.  Furthermore, catalysts and other PGM-based components for fuel cells and electrolysers have been developed, positioning South Africa to be a significant player in the multi-billion-dollar global hydrogen economy.

The IPHE is an international governmental partnership consisting of 22 members that share information and facilitate research, development and deployment initiatives to advance the introduction of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies on a global scale.

The Department of Science and Innovation hosted a gala dinner for delegates from around the world.

Addressing the event, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, praised the IPHE as a platform that encouraged countries to exchange knowledge and experiences regarding breakthroughs involving hydrogen and fuel cells.

“The South African government is investing in the development and application of scientific knowledge domains that are critical for our national development and global competitiveness,” said Minister Nzimande.

One of these is hydrogen fuel cells, and the Minister added that the potential of hydrogen fuel cells had already been successfully demonstrated through the deployment of fuel cells as the primary power for field hospitals set up for Covid-19 patients during the various waves of the pandemic.  This was made possible by the work of the Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) programme.

The HySA programme was established to convert South Africa’s comparative advantage of possessing 75% of the world’s PGM reserves through the development of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

There are several projects under way to stimulate the domestic demand for hydrogen.  These include the hydrogen and platinum valley initiatives, the decarbonisation of transport, and the CoalCO2-X project, which captures flue gas from coal-fired boilers and uses hydrogen to convert the flue gas components into value-added products such as fertilizer salts and sulphuric acid.

“The approval of the Hydrogen Society Roadmap and the extension of the HySA programme for another 10 years by the Cabinet is a clear demonstration of the South African government’s commitment to the hydrogen economy,” said Minister Nzimande.

The role of the hydrogen economy is also recognised in the South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, which was developed to combat the negative economic impact of Covid-19 and stimulate equitable and inclusive growth within the South African economy.

The government is working to increase the value chain for the development of hydrogen skills development, and students from technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges and universities who had participated in a hydrogen economy poster session received awards for their efforts.

While HySA’s skills focus over the past decade has been to support MSc and PhD students and the development of new knowledge, if South Africa is to build a strong fuel cell industry spanning various sectors of the economy, an increasing number of qualified and experienced maintenance technicians, installers and manufacturing professionals will be required.

In September 2020, the Department of Science and Innovation, in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training, began a training programme for unemployed graduates from TVET colleges who had an N4 diploma in engineering or were qualified electricians with training in light and heavy current.  The aim is to develop capable technicians ready for the deployment, installation and maintenance of hydrogen fuel cell systems in South Africa.

Author: Bryan Groenendaal

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