Lights, plug points and fresh water pumped to the pipes from a borehole – these could all change the lives of both pupils and teachers at rural schools, and they could all be powered by a relatively new source of renewable energy – hydrogen.
The department of science and technology in association with Hydrogen South Africa on Friday launched a hydrogen fuel cell system at the Poelano Secondary School in the North West province.
The renewable energy source converts chemical energy (hydrogen) to electricity through a process similar to that of a battery.
News24 reported that the school has been facing problems with its electricity bill and that Eskom has cut the power to the school. This provided an opportunity for the department and Hydrogen South Africa to test the technology.
How does it work
Solar panels were mounted on the roof of the school to start the process.
“The electrical energy from the solar panels is used to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, which is the electrolysis part. The hydrogen will then go to the hydrogen fuel cell and that will produce electricity,” Phillimon Modisha, a research engineer at Hydrogen South Africa, who was at the launch, said.
But if there is solar energy then why do we need the hydrogen fuel cell?
“Well at night you don’t have the sun, so then what? So what happens is that hydrogen is stored in the gas tubes and used when needed. When there is no sun, there will still be electricity used from the hydrogen fuel cell.”
The hydrogen fuel cell
By Modisha’s estimate, the actual fuel cell is about 30cm by 30cm but it is housed in a container-like structure due to the cables, pumps and materials it requires to covert the hydrogen to electricity. This structure is also enclosed by a fence for safety precautions.
“The fuel cell cannot be a stand-alone, it needs some electrical components around it, you need the gas pipes around it, you need a few other materials as well and that is why it is in a container,” he says.
One of the key materials in the fuel cell is platinum, while the power generated can be up to 2.5kW.
This container, which houses the entire system, does not need to be disassembled if it needs to be moved but it would still require a crane.
Cost of technology
The construction of the container took about six months to complete and the project cost an estimated R8 million. However, Modisha said that the cost could be reduced if more partners came on board and if we economies of scale were taken into consideration.
The cost also included a borehole which was dug for the school, which didn’t have a stable and reliable supply of water.
Unique because of the production of hydrogen
The conversion of hydrogen to electricity is not new in South Africa, despite its lack of application.
Modisha said that this particular system is unique in that it has hydrogen production onsite, whereas other systems, launched at other schools in the Eastern Cape, did not produce their own hydrogen.
Modisha is hopeful that this system could be rolled out to more schools across the country in an effort to reduce reliance on traditional production of electricity.