Volume 6, Number 5 - Oct/Nov 2011
25 Degrees in Africa - Energy Efficiency
Affordable telecoms solution for rural Africa
The technology uses ordinary ammonia to extract hydrogen as a fuel source to efficiently power cellphone towers that have no access to main-grid electricity. The science could revolutionise the alternative energy-solutions market in the telecommunications industry worldwide.
Currently it is estimated that 130 000 remote area towers are going up each year globally at a growing rate of more than 6%. This US$9,2-billion market is concentrated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America.
According to the auditing and business advisory firm Ernst & Young, the telecoms market in Africa alone is forecast to grow faster than in any other region.
In its recent study, “Africa Connected, A Telecommunications Growth Story”, Ernst & Young said the telecommunications market in Africa is becoming increasingly competitive and that as competition increased, operational efficiency will take on greater importance for telecommunications operators.
The latest hydrogen-from-ammonia fuel technology currently undergoing field tests is holding out the promise of 25% savings and total equipment cost recovery within two years.
Conducted by UK-based Diverse Energy and the leading South African industrial gas company African Oxygen Limited (Afrox), the first field trials were taking place in a remote area of Namibia in 2010.
Jaco Coetzee, head of special products and chemicals at Afrox, said: “Coverage in remote areas is very patchy and not cost-effective at present due to the need to power telecom towers using diesel generators, with all the inherent logistical and environmental emission issues on top.
“What we are trialling with Diverse Energy, is their PowerCube® proprietary ammonia-cracker integrated system, which produces hydrogen for fuel cells. This compact energy source will replace polluting diesel generators, delivering higher efficiency and lower fuel and maintenance costs, while offering a 25% reduction in total cost of ownership over its five-year life, with a two-year return on investment.”
And with the ammonia readily available from Afrox in most sub-Saharan countries, the “source-to-sink” calculations show an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to diesel generators, together with the elimination of noise and local pollution.
“Ammonia is a cheap fuel with high power density,” said Coetzee “Hydrogen from ammonia dissociation would be the preferred option for small plants like PowerCube®. Millions of tons of ammonia are produced and distributed worldwide every year and the procedures for safe handling have been long-since developed and proven, making ammonia as a fuel source for use in rural areas perfect for Africa.”
Recognition of the PowerCube® technology is growing rapidly, testament to which was it being named as the winner of the prestigious 2009 UK Government Innovation Award for the “Next Big Thing”. This led directly to the current Afrox/Diverse Energy field trials being part-funded by the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board.
“The provision of cellphone communications is seen as an important enabler for new business development in rural regions and is capable of providing a boost to poverty-reduction measures. By lowering the total cost of ownership of rural off-grid cellphone towers, such expansion programmes can be accelerated,” said Coetzee.
Having completed tests with Motorola in the UK, the current African trial with three telecoms operators in three different climatic zones involves 25 PowerCubes® to prove its capabilities Africa-wide.
“These telecoms operators have the chance to trial the system at a cost no higher than our forward-projected sales price, allowing operators to get substantial first-mover advantage and experience the benefits of the PowerCube® without having to fund the full cost of a trial,” said Dr Alastair Livesey, the operations director of Diverse Energy.
“Its adoption will bring many benefits when compared with diesel and solar-panel power, which have value on the black market. Potential thieves would have difficulty selling the ammonia tanks and wouldn’t be able to siphon from the tanks as they could with diesel. Between 15% and 22% of the diesel in Africa is lost to theft in this way.”
The PowerCube® has by-products of about one litre per hour of highly purified water, which can be used for medical purposes, and 30 kilograms of fertiliser every three months. Livesey said these quantities are too small for operators to sell, so they will be used to help local rural communities instead.
“This is a low-cost, environmentally-friendly solution for power in rural areas without access to electricity,” said Coetzee. “It will significantly expand Afrox’s customer base and lower the cost of ammonia in the emerging markets of Africa, where it is traditionally used in fertiliser and refrigeration.
“This project will revolutionise the telecoms industry in Africa and marks the start of Afrox becoming an alternate fuels company as well as a supplier of specialist gases, chemicals and welding equipment.”
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