26th February 2024 10:56 am
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Home made hydrogen fuel cells for your house may be the answer to SA’s energy crisis

Funny thing about Africa: 70% of its inhabitants don’t have access to electricity, but it doesn’t make those of us who suffer at the hands of Eskom any more grateful for our lot. Who hasn’t dreamed of ditching unreliable, expensive grid power for something more cost effective and self sufficient?

While the recent focus on solving the energy crisis in South Africa has been on nuclear reactors sourced from Russia and France, one man thinks the solution is much closer to home. Your home in fact. In around 18 months or so he hopes to have commercialised a domestic generator based on solar power, hydrogen storage and fuel cells that will cost somewhere in the region of R80 000 – which means it would pay for itself in around seven or eight years at current electricity prices (less if you factor in annual increases from Eskom).

And this isn’t some mad, hair brained scheme from the fringes, either: it’s the current focus of Andy Brauer, chief technology officer (CTO) for Business Connexion (BCX).

“A lot of companies are talking about cloud computing and broadband in Africa,” Brauer explains, “But without enough energy to support the broadband network and the internet of tomorrow, they aren’t going to work. Even the smallest modules that make up the internet of things need energy to work. So to me the problem was addressing energy and having a stable base to drive forward with.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“Things are not arranged in a hierarchy any more, that’s how society is starting to form itself and that’s how energy should form itself.”Andy Brauer, CTO, Business Connexion[/su_pullquote]

“A lot of the African countries where we do operate we have problems: sometimes there’s no common earth which causes a problem in the environment so we have to disconnect equipment, in other areas we have to run on diesel continuously. My job is trying to keep our company ahead of the curve through ideas that require research and patience to achieve.”

In person, Brauer is the quintessential scientist-hacker. From his quietly spoken manner to the vaguely Einsteinian hair, it’s no surprise at all when I ask him about his laboratory that he hands me his smartphone which has a live video feed from his desk and is set to alert him if anyone breaks in. And his research into how to power BCX networked ventures across the continent has convinced him that an energy revolution is on the way which will have enormous implications for domestic generation and consumption too. Talking with local platinum firms and fuel cell specialists from the US, Brauer is devising a system which could well change the way we buy electricity.

During a presentation at the My World of Tomorrow show in Sandton last week, Brauer outlined his plans during a presentation on the topic of going ‘off-grid’ – generating power locally rather than relying on the national network – for both for industry and home use.

Fuel cell manufacturer Ballard is working closely with Anglo American and has one village in South Africa running off-grid already.

The biggest issue with renewable sources of power at the grid level is managing fluctuating supply and demand. On a cloudy day, for example, solar cells may not generate enough power to meet demand, and likewise wind turbines don’t turn when there’s no breeze.

In an ideal system, energy would be stored when renewables are overproducing to maintain supply when they’re not – but batteries are expensive and need replacing often. As a result, most planning for the future of national grids involves renewables backed up by traditional power stations. The problem with this model is that starting and stopping a traditional power station is a big and expensive task, and are most cost-effective when left running. This leads to the odd situation in the UK where wind farms are paid large subsidies to be turned off on windy days when there’s not enough demand for their power.

Brauer – along with many others – believes that rather than try to make new energy technologies fit the old national grid model for power distribution, they lend themselves instead to localised networks in which everyone has their own reactor which can be used to top up neighbours’ supplies when necessary.

It’s a peer-to-peer model which, Brauer says, mimics the way the rest of the economy is developing. Small, interlinked networks are replacing top down structures in everything from organising protests to industrial supply chains to corporate org charts.

“It’s an evolving and dynamic model, about how you can sustain yourself through a mesh,” Brauer explains, drawing on the idea of mesh networks for internet access, “Things are not arranged in a hierarchy any more, that’s how society is starting to form itself and that’s how energy should form itself.”

[su_box title=”How do hydrogen fuel cells work?” box_color=”#f37021″]Electricity is generated inside a fuel cell by passing hydrogen through a catalyst – usually a membrane of platinum or specially designed polymer – which strips hydrogen atoms of electrons. These are picked up by positive and negative terminals to create the energy flow. The hydrogen, meanwhile is combined with oxygen on the other side of the catalyst membrane to create pure water – which is the only byproduct of the reaction.[/su_box]

While this model for power networks would require a massive shift in managing the way we use electricity, it could be perfect for Africa. As with mobile phones and cellphone banking, for 70% of the population on the continent there’s no existing infrastructure that would have to be ripped up and replaced. Should someone succeed in making the technology to enable these small neighbourhood production and consumption meshes available, and do it more reliably and at a lower cost than building giant grids and power stations, we could once again leapfrog the world.

And that’s exactly what Brauer says he’s close to bringing to market. He’s working on a system that uses a mix of solar, wind and biogas – which can be made from household waste – to generate energy and hydrogen to store it.

He is, however, wary of revealing exact details of his system just yet due to fears that he’ll be beaten to market. Although he does acknowledge that the firm still needs partners and outside investors to sign up in order to finish commercialising the project. To be clear, we haven’t seen a working prototype yet or seen how Brauer plans to reduce costs.

Right now, Brauer says, that prototype costs around R2m to build. But he’s confident he can reduce that price to less than R100 000 quickly.

“Eighty percent of the problems have been solved,” he says, citing research into more efficient solar technologies and nano-sized fuel cells. “To use an analogy, when the Americans wanted to write in space they spent millions of dollars developing a special pen which works in zero gravity. The Russians said ‘just use a pencil’. My philosophy is to look for the pencil in the problem.”

Brauer’s prototype uses a renewable power source to crack plain water into hydrogen and oxygen. This is a surprisingly straightforward process – generators which are capable of producing a litre of hydrogen a minute for lab use are easily available for around R20 000 to R25 000. They run off a mains supply, and require about 650W of power, so they can be driven directly from a couple of domestic solar panels. The hydrogen fuel produced, says Brauer, can then be converted back in to energy using a low-cost fuel cell.

[su_pullquote]“My job is trying to keep our company ahead of the curve through ideas that require research and patience to achieve.”Andy Brauer, CTO, Business Connexion[/su_pullquote]

The catch with current technology is that it takes a lot of hydrogen to run a fuel cell. A 5kW fuel cell generator requires 65 litres of hydrogen a minute to run at full capacity, and the average home in South Africa uses 844kWh of electricity a year or 2.3kWh a day. To generate that purely from the fuel cell would require 1 728 litres of fuel a day, or 28.8 hours of constant fuel generation in a 24 hour cycle (assuming 1 litre per minute is generated). Of course, since the system is powered by renewables anyway, they can be used to provide power to the home directly, generating fuel when there’s surplus sun – for example – and using it when demand peaks.

Brauer believes that overall, his system will be highly cost effective. This, he says, will be as a result of using up-to-the-minute technology and other tricks such as running appliances directly from the DC power generated in the fuel cell rather than having to transform the electricity into AC power and back again (the reason grid power is AC – alternating current – is that it’s more efficient at long distances and high voltages. You don’t need that if you’re powering your appliances directly from a DC source). He’s wary about giving too much away, however, for competitive reasons.

The other big challenge for domestic use is safe storage. Hydrogen also happens to be highly explosive. A system such as Brauer envisions would need to be built extremely robustly and have multiple failsafes to prevent an explosion. In addition, because hydrogen is the smallest atom on the periodic table there are other problems with storage too. It can find its way into any microscopic cracks in a metal container, for example, and cause them to crack in a process known as ‘brittlisation’.

A basic diagram of how a fuel cell works. [Public domain by R.Dervisoglu]
A basic diagram of how a fuel cell works. [Public domain by R.Dervisoglu]
On top of which, the platinum catalyst itself is very expensive. Some estimates put the cost of this at around R15 000 per fuel cell, which makes up a substantial portion of the overall price. While research into polymer and iron alternatives is looking promising, and might be a thousand times cheaper in the long run, it’s here that South Africa a big advantage and why organisations like HySA – an initiative from the DST which is organised around three competence centres to investigate hydrogen’s uses – are secret success stories in industrial research.  HySA Systems, one of the competency centres, is currently working with Airbus, for example, to develop fuel cells for aeroplanes. We produce about 40% of the world’s supply of platinum, and mining companies like Anglo American are very keen on research to develop uses for the metal here to make fuel cells more viable.

In terms of the safety, Brauer says that he’s looking at using “liquid organic hydrogen carriers” (LOHCs). LOHCs are a relatively recent breakthrough in which a liquid that is physically similar to diesel fuel which bind in hydrogen molecules when the two are mixed under pressure and effectively make them safe to transport in standard fuel tankers. At ambient temperatures, the hydrogen is released from the LOHC, which can be recycled and reused.

LOHCs are currently being researched at HySA, and Brauer acknowledges a debt to Professor Bruno G Pollet who leads the team there, whom he describes as “a brilliant man”. Anglo American is also investing in LOHC technology via a research team at the University of Erlang-Nuremberg in Germany.

Because the technologies are being developed locally, Brauer thinks there’s potential to keep manufacture here too.

“I need to have a few agreements in place but my goal is to get the manufacturing done in South Africa,” he says, “The trick is getting this to a scaleable cost effective model that is what I’ve been working on… I’m hoping that in the next 18 months it will be available. That’s an optimistic view, but it’s realistic and I want it to happen.”

[su_box title=”Hydrogen fuel cells in South Africa” box_color=”#f37021″]Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for nearly 180 years, and were used in early Apollo missions to power spacecraft. The high cost of components – notably the platinum used inside – mean that they’ve not been seriously considered for general use until recently. It’s another area where South Africa is quietly becoming a world leader. At least one village in South Africa is already being powered by a methanol-fuel cell, and some mining companies are using the pollution-free technology to drive vehicles underground. HySA has already manufactured fuel cells in South Africa, and is currently working with Airbus to figure out how to power passenger planes using the technology. Most of the major car manufacturers have also demonstrated fuel cell vehicles and US fuel cell firm Ballard is particularly active here.[/su_box]

While there are strict regulations around manufacturing and storing hydrogen, Brauer says that there are some loopholes in South African law which might make swift adoption possible.

“Right now, there’s no legislation to stop you selling DC energy to your neighbour,” he smiles, “Only AC energy. That will change, but at the moment many household goods could run off of a DC mains… you only need AC for transmitting electricity over long distances.”

For all his ambition, though, Brauer says that he’s happy to take his time if necessary and is wary of being too disruptive in a country where so many jobs are reliant on traditional forms of energy production. Although that shouldn’t be a major concern, he says.

“This model that I’m busy on is focussing on the poor rural areas. By providing the 40% of people who don’t have energy in this country with the electricity and education levels that they need, the benefits will outweigh the cons.”

At the same time, he’s sceptical of recent efforts to increase South Africa’s nuclear power facilities to address the energy shortfall in the country.

“My personal view on nuclear is that Africa has always the dumping ground,” he says, “The Russians have something to dump, and we should stop being gullible. Japan is abandoning nuclear, Germany is abandoning nuclear, why the hell would we want to adopt it now?”

Lest you dismiss Brauer as an environmental do-gooder, while he’s passionate about creating cleaner, more sustainable power than we have now he’s not concerned at all about man-made global warming as a driver for the technology. Rather, he says, it’s about lighting up Africa – and he credits the founders of BCX, the late Benjamin Mophatlane and his twin brother Isaac who is the current CEO, as inspirations for his work.

“Everyone says ‘now is the time for Africa’,” he says, “And I think that is the vision that both our current and our late CEO had. And this is about making that vision and dream for them come true.

[Main image – Andy Brauer, CTO, Business Connexion]

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