There is growing interest internationally in the use of hydrogen fuel cells (HFCs) as an alternative source of energy.  It is now widely accepted that HFCs offer a cleaner and more efficient energy source than traditional combustion-based engines and power plants.


Besides their potential for powering homes and buildings, hydrogen fuel cells can be used in mobile applications to power forklifts, cargo trucks, delivery vans and passenger vehicles.


Their benefits include higher efficiency when compared to diesel fuel, environmental friendliness (zero exhaust emissions), noise-free mobility, and lower maintenance (no oil changes).


HFC technologies were top of the agenda at the 2019 Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program Annual Merit Review and Peer Evaluation Meeting held in Virginia in the United States from 29 April to 1 May. Convened annually by the US Department of Energy (DOE), the meeting reviews HFC projects funded by the DOE's Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program.


Among the participants at this year's meeting were Dr Phil Mjwara, the Director-General of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the DST's Chief Director for Hydrogen and Energy, Dr Rebecca Maserumule.


The DST, through its flagship Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) programme, has made significant progress with local applications of HFC technology.  In 2016, in partnership with Impala Refining Services and the University of the Western Cape, the DST/HySA unveiled a prototype hydrogen fuel cell forklift and refuelling station in Springs, Gauteng.  


The DST and HySA are also piloting a number of other prototypes and demonstrators, including a standby HFC power plant at Poelano High School in the North West.


Among the speakers at the meeting in Crystal City, Virginia were Dr Alan Finkel, Australia's Chief Scientist. Finkel told the gathering that the opportunities for scaling up the HFC industry were enormous. "In terms of research and development areas, we are looking at transport, low cost and reliability of the process around refuelling stations and storage," he said.


According to Dr Sunita Satyapal, Director of the DOE's Fuel Cell Technologies Office, the US currently has more fuel cell powered cars than any other country in the world. "The US has 6 600 fuel cell cars on the road, followed by Japan with 3 000. Other HFC applications in the US are more than 25 000 forklifts, 30 buses and 40 refuel stations," she added.


Keith Schmid, Chief Operating Officer of US company Plug Power, told the meeting that customer acceptance of HFC was increasing. "We have experienced significant advances in commercial fleet vehicle applications," he noted.


The DST's Dr Mjwara and Dr Maserumule met with representatives of Plug Power on the sidelines of the meeting. According to Mjwara, the DST is exploring the possibility of partnering with Plug Power, which works in various areas of HFC application.


A leader in the HFC sector, Plug Power designs and manufactures HFC systems that replace conventional batteries in equipment and vehicles powered by electricity. The company has had considerable success in the deployment of hydrogen refuelling stations aimed at accelerating the adoption of HFC solutions.