Mobile telecoms coverage in remote rural areas could be set to explode with the launch of field trials of a new hi-tech power plant that utilises the latest in hydrogen fuel-cell technology.

The technology extracts hydrogen from ordinary ammonia as a fuel source to efficiently power cell phone towers that have no access to main grid electricity. At the heart of this development in the South Africa region is Afrox.

The science could revolutionise the alternative energy solutions market in the telecommunications industry worldwide.

Currently, it is estimated that 135,000 remote area towers are going up each year globally, at a growing rate of more than 12%. This $10.8bn market is concentrated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America.

According to auditing and business advisory firm Ernst & Young, the telecoms market in Africa alone is forecast to grow faster than any other region, an Afrox press release reports.

The latest hydrogen-from-ammonia fuel technology currently undergoing field tests is holding out the promise of 25% Total Cost of Ownership savings and full equipment cost recovery within two years, compared to diesel generators. The system typically reduces opex costs by 60%.

Conducted by UK-based Diverse Energy and leading South African industrial gases company Afrox, the first field trials will commence in Q3 2010 in Southern Africa.

Robert Carlton-Shields, Afrox Business Manager for Special Products and Chemicals, explained, “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.”

‘Perfect for Africa’
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 elimination of noise and local pollution.

These characteristics earned Afrox a commendation in the Mail & Guardian ‘Greening the Future’ Environmental Awards in June.

As Jaco Coetzee, Afrox’s Chemicals Product Manager, explains in a statement, the company’s readily available supply of ammonia could be put to good use in Africa.

“Ammonia is a cheap fuel with high power density. So hydrogen from ammonia dissociation would be the preferred option for small plants like PowerCube®. Millions of tonnes 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.”

The provision of cell phone communications is seen as an important enabler for new business development in rural regions and as capable of providing a boost to poverty reduction measures.