Government’s hydrogen fuel cell strategy to use locally mined platinum and generate jobs has created an opportunity to make components for the global market.
Two entrepreneurs, one a former Impala Platinum executive and the other an expert in fuel cell technologies, are seeking investors and partners for a potentially multimillion-rand project to manufacture fuel cell components in SA.
The Isondo Precious Metals fuel cell project has been under development for four years by Vinay Somera and Sakib Khan. They have secured licences for technology from DuPont/Chemours, partnered with precious metals fabricators Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo of Japan and sourced a manufacturing plant from Coatem of Germany.
Somera was Implats’ executive of market development & strategy until 2013 while Khan, who has a PhD in fuel cell technology, is a former MD of Intelligent Energy and founder of consultancy Enerleq.
“The plant will be operating by the end of the year”, Somera says.
Fuel cells generate electrical power without pollution. A fuel cell converts elements (most commonly hydrogen and oxygen) into water, and in the process it produces electricity.
Unlike a battery, a fuel cell never “goes dead” as long as chemicals flow into the cell.
The local manufacture of fuel cells using platinum as a catalyst has been identified by government and platinum companies as an opportunity to promote demand for platinum and create jobs. Implats and Anglo American Platinum have showcased hydrogen fuel cell applications in power generation and in underground mining equipment.
Implats is building a 20MW fuel cell plant to provide power for its refinery in Springs. Its power plant uses a phosphoric acid fuel cell, which is appropriate for large-scale stationary power generation.
Isondo will manufacture cells that have a slightly different chemistry, called proton exchange membranes. These types of fuel cells have an 86% market share and are expected to grow as use of hydrogen fuel cells expands in the automotive market. Somera says these are different, not competing technologies. Both use platinum as a catalyst.
Somera and Khan say fuel cell-operated vehicles with a range of more than 500km/5kg of hydrogen are superior to battery-powered electric vehicles. The range can be extended by increasing the amount of hydrogen in the fuel tank using greater pressure, without affecting the weight of the vehicle.
But there are limitations. The lack of refuelling station infrastructure and the cost of fuel cells inhibit growth of the hydrogen fuel cell car market.
Isondo has been self-funded since 2013 though it received some assistance from the trade & industry department last year to accelerate manufacturing. The company now hopes to attract investors to cover operational expenses to take Isondo to commercial viability within the next 18 months.
In the longer term, a stock exchange listing is a possibility.