Fuel Cells May Soon Be Used to Power More than Forklifts

hydrogen-forklift-refuelingHydrogen fuel cells — the cleaner, environmentally-friendly power technology that currently is experimentally used to power forklifts and other industrial machinery — soon could be used to provide power for entire factories, according to a South African platinum producer.

Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., the world’s second-biggest producer of the precious metal, announced last week that it plans to power its entire 22-megawatt refinery in South Africa using nothing but hydrogen- and methane-powered fuel cells within the next two years. And the company is hoping that other industries will quickly follow suit.

A Vested Interest 

Impala, which is based in Johannesburg, has a vested interest in the success of the clean-power experiment. The platinum it produces is used in the hydrogen fuel cells that currently power forklifts and other industrial vehicles. While the company wants to encourage cleaner energy, it also wants to promote new uses for platinum, according to Impala CEO Terence Goodlace.

Currently, the precious metal platinum is used primarily for jewelry and in the catalytic converters in automobiles and other vehicles, where it helps reduce harmful emissions. Because the demand for platinum is so low, the global price of the commodity is at less than half the price it was at its highest in 2008.

Now Impala wants to increase the demand for platinum by promoting the use of hydrogen and methane fuel cell that use the precious metal to create clean energy. The waste products of fuel cells are water and heat.

A Long Way to Go

Currently, about 30,000 ounces of platinum per year are used in fuel cells. Compare that to an annual global usage of platinum of approximately 8.5 million ounces and it’s evident that Impala has a long way to go. But that’s not deterring the company from promoting the benefits of platinum in fuel cells, Goodlace said. By 2026, the company estimates that about 300,000 ounces of platinum will be used in hydrogen and methane fuel cells.

“Catalytic converters have been instrumental in reducing harmful gases from combustion vehicles,” Goodlace said in a news release announcing the company’s plans. “In the longer run, fuel-cell vehicles offer the potential to match these instruments.”

Early Stages of Development

The company also needs to convince other industries to adopt the technology, which currently is prohibitively expensive for most businesses.

Right now, fuel cells powerful enough to power factories are not commercially available. But Goodlace said that as the demand for these types of cleaner power options increases, the costs will become low enough to be a realistic option for businesses.

In January, Impala showcased a hydrogen-powered forklift and refueling station at its refinery in Springs, South Africa. Its latest plan aims to build on this prototype to generate about 8 megawatts of electricity to power the refinery by the end of 2016, with another 1.2 megawatts available by the end of next year.

About 80 percent of all the world’s platinum is mined in Southern Africa. The industry employees an estimated 450,000 people worldwide.


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