The engine of fuel cell vehicle. Picture: ISTOCK
The engine of fuel cell vehicle. Picture: ISTOCK

The Public Investment Corporation (PIC) will continue investing in developing fuel cells in SA although it still has questions about several aspects, Monique Mathys-Graaf, the PIC’s head of investment projects development, said on Friday.

Hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst and the market potential has been identified as a possible game changer for the industry, which has been in decline for a number of years as its main markets — vehicle autocatalysts, jewellery and investment — have shrunk. Almost 80% of the world’s platinum deposits are in SA.

Mathys-Graaf told a panel discussion on fuel cells at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) that whether there was an investment case for fuel cells depended on whether they could deal with SA’s energy needs, had compelling benefits in combating climate change and could create a sufficiently large market to help the platinum industry. The global listed fuel cell sector had not delivered good returns, she said. Over the past few years its market capitalisation has shrunk to $1bn from $12bn.

The PIC was confident SA could find niche applications in telecoms, stationary power, energy generation and materials handling but the country was less competitive in portable fuel cells and the transport sector. Despite good work by platinum companies and research institutions, SA had missed opportunities to serve those two areas.

She said the PIC had lingering questions about fuel cells’ ability to deal with energy needs cleanly and cost-effectively and whether SA could compete globally in this market.

"Most of the PIC’s answers are ‘maybe’ and ‘yes’, which
is sufficient for us to
continue," she said to cheers from the audience.

The biggest issue for fuel cell development in SA was a funding gap, she said, because the industry was still in the high risk, high return category.

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