Hydrogen-power boost for snail Post Office mail

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER


"South African Post Office (Sapo)" and "cutting-edge technology" are phrases that seldom occur in the same sentence, but four scooters could change that.
The scooters, developed and built at the University of the Western Cape, will be used for mail deliveries later this year. They are powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and the team developing them believes they could foreshadow an economic boom.
SA is the source of 80% of the world's platinum, "the only known catalyst" for the chemical reaction that makes hydrogen fuel cells work, according to Sivakumar Pasupathi of Hydrogen SA (HySA).
If the Sapo scooter trial helps to make fuel cells commercially viable, it could "do for the country what oil did for the Middle East", said Pasupathi, whose team and its laboratory are funded by the department of science & technology.
Hosting an international gathering of fuel-cell stakeholders in Pretoria in December, science & technology minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane reiterated SA's determination to promote the technology.
According to Pasupathi, the key advantage that fuel cells offer over batteries is range. On a single charge, battery-powered scooters can cover a maximum of 80km.
The UWC scooters can cover twice that distance before refuelling. The team has used its experience in building golf carts, forklifts and generators for aircraft to develop the scooters.
"It is a challenge for the Sapo to deliver mail with their electric scooters on a single charge and that is what they wanted - to extend the range," said Pasupathi.
Next month, the fuel-cell scooters will begin a three-month testing period at the university before being delivered to the Sapo.
"This could become the standard, not just for postmen but for day-to-day commuters," said Pasupathi.
"We need to master the prototypes so that by 2023 there will be mass production and costs will come down."
Hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table and is highly reactive, which gives it a lot of potential as a fuel, said Pasupathi.
It can be generated from various sources, but the "greenest form is to take it from renewables like solar or wind power, and then break water down into hydrogen and oxygen and then store the hydrogen in a canister. This is how the fuel cell is created."
The only by-products are water and heat, which makes it a pollution-free technology. The engine also makes hardly any noise and has no moving parts.

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