Prototype for rural power

The solar-hydrogen-fuel cell power plant. (Supplied)

The solar-hydrogen-fuel cell power plant. (Supplied)

Vaal University of Technology’s Centre for Alternative Energy has come up with a new, practical solution to help rural and informal communities that aren’t on the national electricity grid.

Research found that solar-hydrogen-fuel cell power plants with capacities smaller than 10 kilowatts could provide enough electricity to maintain a small household with a reliable form of electricity and heat.

“Our goal is to increase the quality of life for people who suffer without electricity, such as those in rural communities,” says project co-ordinator Professor Christo Pienaar.

“Our project aims to manufacture our own patented membrane electrode assembly and use it in our fuel cells that will generate electricity at night.”

The main prototype is a standalone cell system that generates 99.999% pure hydrogen during the day with the use of the regenerative fuel cell and water and solar energy.

The hydrogen is then stored in low-pressure tanks and used as fuel at night in a process that generates heat and pure water as a by-product. The regenerative cell re-uses this water to repeat the process.

“The manufacturing of low-pressure hydrogen tanks is essential for the implementation and commercialisation of the power plant,” says Pienaar. “This will inevitably create many job opportunities and involve the entire community.”

The solution put forward by the Vaal University of Technology competes against low-cost Chinese imports, encourages local product development and stimulates job creation. The management and cleaning of the panels require trained staff, and the regular provision of electricity will encourage the growth of local businesses and educational opportunities.

“We hope that this research will eventually lead to eradicating the digital divide,” says Pienaar.

“We are also busy developing an energy efficient e-learning centre for rural communities alongside our power plant, continuing our commitment to changing people’s lives for the better.”