The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is busy with the development of a hydrogen-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) using locally developed fuel cell technology to support efforts to decarbonise aviation in South Africa.
Kevin Jamison and Purusha Naidoo, systems engineers at the CSIR, in a presentation to the Aeronautical Society of South Africa at the beginning of November explained that the development of the UAV is in line with the Department of Science and Innovation’s Hydrogen Society Roadmap that aims to develop a sustainable and competitive hydrogen economy in South Africa by 2050.
South Africa has significant unrealised potential to generate low-cost green hydrogen (green hydrogen does not ultimately release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as it uses renewable energy from wind or solar to split water into hydrogen and oxygen). Rheinmetall Denel Munition, for example, in September launched its green hydrogen modular, self-sustaining, renewable de-centralised energy solution that uses solar power to split water.
The CSIR is developing the hydrogen-powered UAV between 2022 and 2026, as part of a roadmap that could lead to the development of fuel cells for hydrogen-powered general aviation aircraft (2026-2029), and hydrogen-power for regional airliners (2029-2034).
The project aims to develop, demonstrate and prove an integrated airborne hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system for UAVs, and license the fuel cell propulsion system to a local entity for qualification, industrialisation, and commercialization. The UAV, which is optimised for hydrogen propulsion, will also be licensed to a local entity for qualification, industrialisation and commercialization.
The UAV will be of a fixed wing, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) design, with multiple rotors for vertical flight. Although hydrogen fuel cells are initially more expensive than alternative energy sources like fossil fuels or batteries, they are quiet and are much more suitable for long endurance missions than batteries.
The aircraft will be aimed at both civil and military applications, including long endurance patrol, long range monitoring, and long range surveillance, with a reconfigurable payload bay capable of carrying up to 5 kg.
Endurance is intended to be greater than ten hours and maximum operating altitude nearly 5 000 metres above sea level. The aircraft will be designed to operate in difficult conditions, including 60 km/h winds, temperatures of more than 45 degrees Celsius, and 1-5 mm/h of precipitation.
After initial electric (battery)-powered flight testing, the locally developed fuel cell will be integrated into the UAV and will undergo flight testing and demonstrations.
The CSIR is getting funding from the South African government’s Department of Science and Innovation and reports strong interest in the project, including from the military and local and international operators. Several local universities and companies have been in discussion with the CSIR to partner on the project.
The project will benefit from work done by Hydrogen SA, which has amongst others developed a portable on-site hydrogen generator that can produce 2.5 kg of hydrogen a day. The system weights 850 kg. Hydrogen SA has also developed a storage vessel weighing 1.7 kg and able to store 4.7 litres of hydrogen.
Green hydrogen is under the spotlight this week as Infrastructure South Africa (ISA) hosts the inaugural South Africa Green Hydrogen Summit (SAGHS) in Cape Town, which runs from 28 to 30 November. The Summit showcases the country’s offering as a large-scale, low cost, world class green hydrogen production hub and total value chain investment destination.
South Africa is one of the founding members of the Africa Green Hydrogen Alliance (AGHA) which seeks to promote continental green hydrogen cooperation.
The Summit builds on the opportunities identified during the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium South Africa (SIDSSA) of 2021. One of the highlights of the symposium was South Africa’s emergence as a potential global exporter of green energy with major investment support from Sasol and Anglo-American giving a boost to the country’s green hydrogen projects.
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Green hydrogen was further identified as a “big frontier” in the Country Investment Strategy, indicating that it represents both current and future growth and investment potential for South Africa.