- Students of UCT are researching ways to use green hydrogen to make cleaner cooking and aviation fuels.
- Green cooking fuel could help solve health, environmental and other social issues linked to burning traditional fuels like wood and waste.
- The German government has contributed to the projects as part of its commitment to the just energy transition.
- GOOD NEWS DAY IS BACK! News24 celebrates the people restoring pride in our country. Read their stories here
Students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) are at the forefront of South Africa’s research into using green hydrogen to make cleaner fuels for cooking and aviation.
Green hydrogen is made by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis – whereby an electric current flows though water. The electricity comes from renewable energy sources, like solar PV and wind, which means there are no emissions in its production, and that’s what makes it clean. It is better than other existing methods of producing hydrogen, which releases greenhouse gas emissions – that ultimately cause climate change.
Carla Mathyse and Candace Eslick are two UCT students who are working on a project known as Green-QUEST, and it’s all about creating a green cooking fuel for low-income households, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, said Professor Jack Fletcher, their supervisor and director of the Catalysis Institute.
Green-QUEST is a consortium whose partners include the Helmholtz Centre Berlin for Materials and Energy, in Germany.
The project is wholly funded by the German government as part of its commitments to the Just Energy Transition and is valued at €4.6 million (R90.60 million), said Fletcher.
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Mathyse, a master’s student at the Catalysis Institute, said that the aim is to use green hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce a new product – liquefied fuel gas or LFG. This is a “green version” of LPG – which is used for household cooking and heating, Mathyse explained.
LFG could ultimately replace coal, wood and waste as an energy source for low-income domestic households, said Fletcher. This would help avoid health and environmental problems caused by air pollution from burning biomass, coal and wood.
It would also address the productive time individuals (mostly women and children) lose collecting wood and other sources of fuel. Replacing solid fuels with LFG for indoor cooking and household heating would improve the quality of life for many, Mathyse said.
On a bigger scale, if LFG replaces fossil fuel-based LPG, it would help reduce carbon emissions, supporting South Africa’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Energy insecurity is a huge problem in Africa, and climate change is a huge problem globally. This research is important because it addresses both issues,” Mathyse added.
Mathyse said her section of the project involves synthesising or making a catalyst to produce LFG. “The catalyst is needed for the conversion of the feedstocks (green hydrogen and carbon dioxide) to LFG. The catalyst is a very expensive part of the process, and we need to be able to maximise its life. I’m trying to modify the catalyst to extend its life to make the production of LFG economically feasible,” Mathyse said.
Mathyse started her research in March 2022. She is hopeful of completing her lab-based research by September 2022 and her dissertation by December 2023.
“When I heard about the project, I just wanted to be involved in any capacity,” Mathyse said, who aspires to build a career in the energy sector. She believes the goals of the research are innovative enough to disrupt the energy sector, as it will introduce an economically and technically feasible alternative to fossil fuel-based LPG.
“We are living in a very exciting time where globally we are united to fight climate change and develop new fuels. But, it’s also a strange time because our current fossil-based systems are mature and cost-effective, yet our need for climate action is pushing us to ignore profits and let go of what is working to innovate,” Mathyse said.
Carla Mathyse, a masters student, shares more on her research – a catalyst to produce LFG in an economically feasible way.
Supplied Jenine May, UCT
Eslick, who started her master’s in January 2022, focuses on developing the process to produce green LFG. “I am specifically focused on making the LFG in the lab using a small-scale reactor,” said Eslick.
Eslick said her research is aligned to the country’s goals to decarbonise the energy sector, because she’s working with a fuel source (green hydrogen) that isn’t derived from fossil fuels. Her research also involves using captured carbon dioxide to produce the fuel, preventing it from entering the atmosphere, which addresses climate change concerns.
The project will also serve as a model for future projects that will address climate change and alternative fuels, Eslick said.
“Cooking forms an integral part of our everyday lives. I think it is very important to be able to then make the energy necessary for cooking more available and accessible for households, particularly low-income households that do not have access to modern sources of energy,” said Eslick.
“…This is why I am keen on making cooking fuel. Something so simple that is used in our everyday lives that we don’t think twice about has the power to change many lives,” she added.
The project is an opportunity for Eslick, who is passionate about chemical engineering, to use her knowledge and skills to “solve societal issues.”
“So, the importance of this project lies in helping people, which is an impact I very much hope to achieve by being part of this project,” said Eslick.
Candace Eslick, a masters student at UCT is researching how to make LFG in a lab, using a small reactor.
News24 Lameez Omarjee
Green-QUEST also aims to develop small enterprises that would distribute LFG in communities to create jobs. Communities have not yet been identified but are expected to be in the greater Cape Town area and surrounds, said Fletcher. If the project is successful, an industrialisation plan could be developed around it to create jobs, which also ties in with South Africa’s just energy transition plans.
Green aviation fuel
A second project, which is bigger in value, €40 million – or R790 million – is Care-O-Sene and seeks to create a sustainable fuel for aviation or aircraft, known as green kerosene. Conventionally kerosene is fossil fuel-based.
Similarly to the cooking fuel project, green hydrogen (produced using renewable electricity) and carbon dioxide will be the inputs for the process to produce a new product – green kerosene.
The process involves Fischer Tropsch technology, which was pioneered by Sasol, a partner in the project.
The other project partners are Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and INERATEC GmbH.
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The two projects were presented to the German delegation led by Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger on her visit to South Africa, on Monday. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde also attended the tour of the lab where the research is being conducted at the campus’s chemical engineering building.
Stark-Watzinger told News24 that both projects were climate neutral, and the technologies would change the way we live and travel. Stark-Watzinger explained:
Research is key to the solution. Research provides the answers to the questions we have, and it is here – in universities – where the future is always a step closer.
Germany is partially funding these projects as part of its commitment to the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), announced at COP26 in the UK two years ago. Other partner countries are the UK, US, France and Germany – they pledged an initial $8.5 billion to support South Africa’s just transition to a low-carbon economy.
The JETP targets decarbonisation in the energy sector, the development of electric vehicles and green hydrogen.
On Monday evening Stark-Watzinger and Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande signed a joint declaration to establish a bilateral research chair for the just energy transition.
This evening, I signed a Joint Declaration of intent with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany concerning the establishment of a bilateral research chair on “Just energy transition” pic.twitter.com/vH4J1eRgLS
— Minister Blade Nzimande (@DrBladeNzimande) March 27, 2023
“As both countries we regard the energy transition, the transition from fossil fuel energy production to carbon-neutral energy systems, as crucial for social, ecological and economic development in both countries,” the Nzimande said.
Stark-Watzinger said that this agreement would address the sociological aspects of the transition.
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