Digging Deeper than Platinum: South Africa's Participation in an Emergent Fuel Cell Industry

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Jansen, Melanie
Fuel Cell Technology , Platinum , Mechanization , Knowledge-Based Economy , South Africa
South’s Africa’s position as global platinum supplier provides a unique opportunity for an emergent fuel cell industry. The innovative technology’s reliance on platinum has sparked interest in the mining sector, promoting the clean energy-producing devices in their own operations. This research focuses upon contemporary structures of racial oppression within the industry, to analyse how these dynamics influence the development and implementation of innovative technology. It also challenges the sustainability discourse associated with fuel cell technology in South Africa. The study follows a qualitative research approach, incorporating a political ecology focus to highlight the politicized nature of these interactions. The methodology incorporates a literature review, key informant interviews, fieldwork observations and document analysis. Findings indicate that the implementation of fuel cell technology in South Africa’s platinum mines will disproportionately burden historically disadvantaged South Africans, with the lack in technical knowledge-base considered a major challenge. Additionally, it was found that sustainability claims surrounding fuel cell technology are largely based on environmental characteristics. This has resulted in an oversimplification and a depoliticised account of the impacts of the technology. This study looked critically at the convergence of history and innovation, placing emphasis on context, power relations and knowledge to provide a more holistic account of the research problem. Opportunities exist for making a meaningful and viable contribution towards development and sustainability by means of investing in a South African fuel cell industry. The challenge will be in deliberately seeking pathways which address the more complex components of sustainability, benefitting all stakeholders and paying particular attention to the historical, political and social contexts from which the technology emerges. It is this particular context which allows for a questioning and perhaps even a re-evaluation of the sustainability narratives broadly applied to fuel cell technology.
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