JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – The enactment by more governments of policies to enable greater hydrogen fuel cell mobility would be a massive boost for South Africa’s platinum group metals (PGMs) sector, Mining Weekly can today report.
Adoption of hydrogen fuel cell mobility has already been significantly enabled by the German government to the extent that hydrogen refuelling is no longer an issue, even for private cars travelling anywhere in Germany. (Also watch attached Creamer Media video.)
Given that the PGMs mining industry is inextricably linked to the automotive industry, the direction taken by it is crucial for the South African economy.
Many countries have hydrogen strategies which have opened the way for large fuel-cell trucking and coming with that is an envisioned eventual logical extension of this to hydrogen cars, which would put the PGMs industry in a very good place.
To achieve this, adequate hydrogen refuelling station accessibility needs to be fostered by government policies.
Also needed is continued investment in green hydrogen fuel cell technology, which makes use of platinum and ruthenium PGMs, and proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers, which produce green hydrogen from renewable energy with the help of platinum and iridium.
These and many more points were driven home forcefully by Anglo American executive head market development Benny Oeyen, BASF senior VP global precious metal services Timothy Ingle and Umicore AG senior VP precious metals management Bernhard Fuchs during last week’s 2022 PGMs Industry Day.
Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles are the biggest users of PGMs, which serve as pollution-combatting catalysts in the exhaust systems of ICE vehicles.
But receiving the strongest policy support from governments are battery electric vehicles (BEVs) – even if the electricity they end up using is fossil-fuel based.
Needing much firmer government support, which would likely then be followed by greater original equipment manufacturer (OEM) take-up, are fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
FCEVs that make use of green hydrogen guarantee emission-free mobility and environment-friendly heavy-duty transport.
A sword hanging over the head of South Africa’s PGMs mining industry is the ban under a variety of timeframes of ICEs and the announcements by OEMs of their plans to reduce ICE production over time, or even eliminate ICE investment altogether, and to focus on BEVs instead.
This is why South African Inc needs to shout out the benefits of FCEVs from the rooftops as the world’s sole provider of clean and green heavy-haul, long-distance transport – and to get going rapidly to demonstrate this on the proposed green hydrogen corridor from Limpopo, through Gauteng to KwaZulu-Natal.
Giving the South African PGMs industry some lucky breathing space is the overwhelming viewpoint that PGMs-using ICE vehicles will be around across the world for many decades to come, and a mixture of lower-carbon ICE hybrid vehicles for even longer, which will keep up demand for palladium, rhodium and platinum.
In the interim, South Africa Inc should put its foot flat on the green hydrogen production pedal using exclusively PEM electrolyser technology.
All mining companies with water flooded underground mines should be encouraged to turn those into hydropower plants that, with the help of solar and wind power, generate green hydrogen electricity for operational mobility as well as for nearby communities without power.
“Fuel cells are very important,” said Oeyen during the PGMs Industry Day covered by Mining Weekly.
“We talk a lot about how hydrogen will save the PGMs industry. That’s not true. What is true is that fuel cells are going to save the PGMs industry, because it is in fuel cells and PEM electrolysers that you have a lot of demand for PGMs. Hydrogen by itself is just a tool, it’s an enabler for the deployment of fuel cells, which will be the catalyst for the acceleration of PGM demand,” said Oeyen.
“My question is how are fuel cells doing? I come from the car industry and it’s the classic chicken and egg situation. If you talk to the OEMs, they say fuel cells are fantastic, they provide electric drive without all the hassle, without the cables, without range restrictions, and so fuel cells are perfect.
“But they point out that there are no refueling stations and if you talk to Shell, BP, Total and all the fuel station operators, they say they are not going to invest in expensive hydrogen refueling stations because there are no cars.
“It’s a classic chicken and egg, so who’s going to break the egg? Is it going to be the trucks? Is that where it’s going to start and be the accelerator that turns fuel cell mobility into a reality?” asked Oeyen, in pointing out that trucks driving along a freight corridor require fewer hydrogen refueling stations.
On where the responsibility lies for the breaking of the chicken-and-egg deadlock, Fuchs was emphatic: “The answer is very simple – governments must do this. Neither car OEMs nor the filling station organisers will do it. It’s governments who must.”
On the pros and cons of FCEVs versus BEVs in different segments, Ingle said: “The cost of producing a heavy-duty vehicle is significant, as is the weight…and this is where FCEVs come in. We’ve got to pick our points and pick our areas, and then I do see FCEV opportunities in the heavy-duty segment.”
Many countries have hydrogen strategies and policies must now be formulated to open the way for large FCEV trucking and then small FCEV cars.
“Governments are good at breaking all kinds of things, so let’s hope this time around they’ll break the good egg that will generate the big chickens, the hydrogen trucks, and later the small chickens, the hydrogen cars, which will put the PGMs industry in a very good place,” Oeyen enthused.