Hopes for hydrogen economy

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Transitioning to a hydrogen-powered economy could bring great benefits for SA, both economically and socially, as the world explores new forms of energy.

This is according to Dmitri Bessarabov, director of the Department of Science and Technology's (DST) HySA Infrastructure Centre of Competence, speaking at the Sustainability Week conference on Friday.

Bessarabov noted that SA has plans to move from being a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, facilitated by breakthrough innovations in the areas of science and technology. The DST has stated that the country's developmental goals can only be achieved if SA takes further steps to becoming a knowledge-based economy, in which science and technology information and learning move to the centre of economic activity.

Given that platinum acts as a catalyst for hydrogen, fuel cells and associated H2 infrastructure represent an exciting new market, which could drive growth for platinum as well as spark significant new opportunities for SA, said Bessarabov.

As the world's top producer of platinum group metals (PGMs), SA has a unique opportunity to capitalise on the global demand for energy and rising prominence of clean fuel technologies. “The benefits of developing an H2 infrastructure and fuel cell market in SA includes meeting the increasing demand for energy; the reduction of our carbon footprint; and an opportunity for job creation,” said Bessarabov.

One of the DST's strategic goals is to develop a local, cost-competitive hydrogen-generation solution base, with the aim of developing renewable resources and creating wealth through the value-added manufacturing of PGM catalysis. The goal is to supply 25% of PGM catalysis demand by 2020.

“At the core of fuel cell innovations is the platinum catalyst. The emerging fuel cell market is expected to grow to a multibillion-dollar international industry. This places SA, which holds 87% of known platinum reserves, in a highly advantageous position,” says the DST.

Benefits also include helping promote equity and inclusion in the economic benefits of SA's resources, with small and medium-sized enterprises expected to play an important future role.

The DST identifies seizing opportunities in areas such as the hydrogen economy as part of its 'Ten-year plan for SA (2008 to 2018)', to establish capabilities “that will provide long-term, sustainable solutions in national priority areas such as health and energy, while boosting economic growth”.

The department recognises, however, that there are obstacles ahead: “Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are widely seen as possible energy solutions for the 21st century, yet it is far from clear how we will achieve what has been called the 'hydrogen economy', in which energy is stored and transported as hydrogen.”

Bessarabov agrees that realising the potential of a hydrogen economy will require intensive R&D and investment. He points to the related field of electric cars, which, despite great promise, has struggled to get off the ground.

The DST says it is working to establish a specific policy framework to realise opportunities in these areas, along with a science and knowledge base that will ensure SA benefits optimally from the nascent hydrogen economy.

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