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Now palladium comes under the Heraeus-Sibanye spotlight to boost hydrogen economy

Palladium bars.

Palladium bars.

15th February 2024

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor

     

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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Germany’s Heraeus Precious Metals and South Africa’s Sibanye-Stillwater are partnering to explore new applications for platinum-group metals (PGMs) in the hydrogen economy, with a specific focus on how applications can profit from the unique traits of palladium, one of the six PGM elements.

Currently, it is the platinum and iridium PGMs that dominate in the hydrogen space. However, this is the second joint effort by Heraeus and Sibanye to develop new PGM markets.

The first centred on the introduction of a ruthenium-based catalyst to reduce reliance on iridium for proton exchange membrane (PEM) water electrolysis. Ruthenium is another of the six PGM elements and the ruthenium-based catalyst emergence uplifts the sustainability of hydrogen production hugely by greatly reducing material cost and slashing reliance on highly scarce and very expensive iridium.

Now, the aim of the latest equally funded PGMs-balancing project is to develop alternative markets for palladium and support the emerging hydrogen sector with technical innovations.

Increasing demand for hydrogen purification during the production of blue hydrogen is one possible example of a palladium-based application.

Further examples include the cracking of hydrogen carriers as well as in the semiconductor industry, where high-purity hydrogen is needed as a process gas.

When moving technologies to scale, reliable process efficiency is key, and PGMs are seen as a provider of this.

“Together with Heraeus Precious Metals, we invest in new technologies that leverage the unique characteristics of PGMs in line with our company purpose of combatting climate change and fostering the sustainability of the industry,” Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman emphasised.

“We expect hybrids to become the dominant engine type underpinning demand for palladium in the medium term. Longer term and in response to changing demands, the PGMs industry must innovate and stabilise the PGMs market,” Froneman added.

Hydrogen has emerged as a fundamental element in the energy transition, with the Hydrogen Council expecting capacities of 175 GW by 2030. Notably, 40% of this future capacity will be produced using PEM electrolysis.

“We’re doing our part in the energy transition by bringing precious metal solutions to hydrogen technologies and enabling performance at scale,” was the comment of Heraeus Precious Metals Business Line Hydrogen Systems head Dr Philipp Walter.

BALANCING PGMS SUPPLY BASKET

Palladium demand has been dominated by autocatalysis for the past few decades and palladium remains critical to emissions control in both internal combustion engine and in hybrid vehicle engines, but the special physical and chemical characteristics this PGM possesses lend themselves to wider industrial applications.

Over the longer term, demand for palladium in the automotive sector is expected to decrease, creating an opportunity to consider new applications for palladium that will not only benefit downstream industry users, but also ensure sustainable demand for the metal.

With their partnership, the two companies aim to ensure a sustainable PGMs supply basket.

Major ingredients of the mined PGMs basket include palladium and platinum along with critical materials such as iridium, ruthenium and rhodium, and to ensure market demand for these materials can be met requires sufficient demand for all metals to be sustained in the long term.

While the emerging green hydrogen and fuel cell market offers high potential for increasing demand for platinum, opportunity exists for the partnership to develop and scale corresponding applications for palladium, the companies stated in a joint release.

With about 3 000 employees at 15 sites worldwide, including a presence in South Africa's Gqeberha and in Boksburg, Heraeus Precious Metals offers products essential for the automotive, chemicals, semiconductor, pharmaceutical, hydrogen and jewellery industries and as early as next year, Heraeus Precious Metals is itself targeting carbon neutrality.

Mining Weekly can report that the growing of the hydrogen market has been declared a key pillar of the South African government's green hydrogen economy strategy to lower carbon emissions meaningfully, unlock investment enormously, create jobs, and drive demand for PGMs.

Hydrogen has unrivalled attributes, including having more than three times the gravimetric energy density of conventional fuel, and it must be borne in mind that one cannot get a more sustainable fuel than hydrogen, in that 75% of the entire universe consists of hydrogen and 70% of the earth is covered by water, which is made up of one hydrogen molecule and two oxygen molecules.

There are no carbon emissions in creating hydrogen from renewable sources and there are no carbon emissions in using hydrogen. Moreover, more countries are targeting energy independence through renewables and hydrogen.

This week's Hydrogen Fuel News points out China's “extreme enthusiasm” about the role of hydrogen in its decarbonisation strategy. On the transport front, this effort involves the construction of an initial network of more than 1 200 hydrogen refuelling stations.

In South Africa, energy company Sasol this week collaborated with German luxury car manufacturer BMW to open a hydrogen refuelling station in Johannesburg. (See full report and video here.)

For the first time, BMW has a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled cars on South Africa’s roads, supported by a green hydrogen refuelling set-up at its Midrand campus.

The outcome of BMW, PGMs producer Anglo American Platinum and long-standing hydrogen producer Sasol finding common ground was the launch on Valentine’s Day of a heavenly BMW iX5 Hydrogen passenger car, which Mining Weekly can confirm infinitely outstrips the ‘sheer driving pleasure’ slogan of the already top-rated BMW mobility brand.

Tested by enthusiastic media on local South African roads, BMW iX5 Hydrogen combines long-distance capability and short refuelling stops with emission-free driving – an absolutely necessary advance to save Mother Earth from climate change catastrophe.

The BMW iX5‘s 6 kg of hydrogen allows for a 500 km range, with the car’s platinum-based fuel cell turning green Sasol hydrogen into perfectly clean electricity that powers the quiet drive train.

It is no coincidence that South Africa, with its superior sun, prime wind and PGM abundance, is one of only ten countries currently traversed by BMW’s latest green hydrogen masterpiece.

What the car world loves about hydrogen is that it is not only the planet’s most abundant energy source but that it is also a transport vector with a storage magnitude that ensures that renewable energy can be offered even when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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