Navigant Research Blog

Fuel Cell Myth #2: There is Not Enough Platinum in the World to Roll Out a Global Fuel Cell LDV Fleet

Kerry-Ann Adamson — March 16, 2011

Low temperature fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst. PEM (low temperature and high temperature), DMFC, PAFC and, in some cases, the anode on AFCs use platinum. Platinum is used due to the very slow dissociation in the chemical conditions found in a fuel cell. In other words it is linked to durability. If you were to strip out all of the platinum from a fuel cell the durability would tank. One of the most enduring myths in the industry is that there is not enough platinum in the world to sustain the full roll out of a fuel cell LDV global fleet. Never mind rolling out a sustainable fuel cell industry! Although a blog is certainly not enough space to go into this at length, it is certainly capable of a romp through the issues.

#1: Platinum Availability

Increasing interest is coming to bear on the risks in the cleantech industry. Materials risk, security risk, and metals risk are just some. For fuel cell technology the risk is the availability of the key materials and metals, shown in the table below.

As an aside the focus, and increasing concern, over REMs for SOFCs has only recently become apparent. REMs including Yttria (yttrium oxide), lanthanum, and ceria (cerium oxide) which are critical to the ceramic cells that are at the core of every SOFC. With China’s recent decision to enforce strict new quotas on REM exports, supply for new technologies, such as SOFCs, could be restricted to ensure continued supply for other commercially available applications. For more information on REMs and Cleantech please refer to the Pike Research report “Analyzing REM Demand and Risk from the Global Cleantech Industry: 2011-2017,” which my colleague Euan is publishing this quarter.

With the majority of Platinum located in just one country, South Africa, the focus is clearly on how much there is in the ground and how much of that can economically (and safely) be mined. According to a recent paper published in the journal Platinum Metals Review by Prof. Grant Cawthorn, a lot of the debate on how much metals there is in the ground is based in fact on the strict definitions that the mining companies are allowed to publish as “Reserves” and “Resources” and not on any geological measurement of the potential precious group metals (PGMs) that exist in South Africa.

The definitions provided in the paper are:

“A mineral ‘reserve’ is an ore body for which adequate information exists to permit confident extraction. Briefly, it requires that all aspects including adequately spaced drilling, assaying, mineralogical and metallurgical studies, mine planning, beneficiation, environmental, social and legislative issues, and financial viability have been addressed. Mining companies would typically plan their exploration and evaluation strategies such that they had a minimum of ten years of ore in this category. “

“A mineral ‘resource’ is an ore body for which there are reasonable and realistic prospects for eventual extraction. Addressing of all the issues listed under ‘reserve’ would have been initiated and all such results would be positive. Mining companies might aim to have a further ten years of ore in this category.”

So realistically, these combined provide a maximum of a 20 year window of information. Taken into account these clear boundaries on definition the big four mining companies (Anglo Platinum, Implats, Lonmin, and Northam Platinum) have published an estimate of at least 1200 million ounces of platinum group elements of which more than 50% is platinum. So conservatively some 600 million ounces of platinum could be recovered within the next 20 years. This, of course, assumes no major disruption to the mining industry in South Africa from issues such as rolling blackouts.

Of the recovered metal a number of industries, especially car catalysts, already claim demands on the metal so how much is available for the fuel cell industry? Actually speaking to some of the mining companies the answer that comes back tends to be along the lines of, “How much do you need so we can dig it out of the ground?” Granted, this is very simplistic paraphrasing of the discussion but in essence it is that there is enough spare capacity to fulfil demand. But with the long time frames needed to open up new shafts the critical part of this equation is working out how much the fuel cell industry will need.

#2: Platinum Loadings in the Fuel Cell Industry

We all know platinum loadings were very high and have come down significantly since 2006. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have kindly published the graph, reproduced below, showing just how much they have come down. Don’t forget that the 2015 target is to reduce the platinum content even further down to 0.2 g/kW without a degradation in stack performance.

Outside of the automotive fuel cell industry platinum loadings are not information for public consumption so although it would be interesting to the show the graph of loadings for say PEM UPS units this is not possible. So let’s just stick with the automotive stacks.

Assuming that in 2015 we have a 0.2 g/kW stack, with according to a number of companies plenty of wiggle room left to reduce this still further, and we have, say for arguments sake, 50,000 FCVs with 80 kW stacks then the platinum demand will be 800 kilograms of platinum. Not exactly going to break the industry is it!

But this is the point at which a number of the calculations go wrong. The first is that they assume no further decreases in platinum thrifting, or removing of platinum in the fuel cell. The second, and just as important, is that they assume no platinum recycling. As platinum does not disassociate with use it can removed from the stack at the end of the stack life and be used. DOE targets for platinum recycling are some 98% of reusable material. So for every kilogram in they are working towards being able to remove and reuse 980 grams. Finally, they often do not assume and spare capacity in the mines and use the definitions or reserve and resource to mean to the total amount of Platinum in the ground, and not as shown above, that which could be mined in the next 20 years.

#3: How Much Platinum Will be Needed by the Fuel Cell Industry?

This is the million dollar question and, sorry for this, I am going to have to refer you to the forthcoming “Analyzing PGM Demand and Risk from the Global Fuel Cell Industry 2010-2017” which we will publish in the second quarter of this year. Interesting area and it will be interesting reading.

One Response to “Fuel Cell Myth #2: There is Not Enough Platinum in the World to Roll Out a Global Fuel Cell LDV Fleet”

  1. Currently General Motors FC stack uses 30grams of platinum. There are 28.4 grams in an ounce! GM makes 2,980,688 cars a year! They only own 4% of the world market for car production! That is 89,420,640 million ounces a year! I repeat A YEAR!

    Fuel cells will not just be in cars. Fuel cells will be used in every aspect of our lives. They will be in our cars, phones, computers and homes. If one believes that a PRECIOUS noble metal is not limited then the very definition of PRECIOUS metal needs to be redefined.

    In addition, if we switch to a hydrogen economy and that economy is dependent upon platinum as a catalyst, the cost of platinum will sky-rocket to levels yet imagined.

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