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Platinum-group metals need wider range of uses to ensure ongoing demand in wake of auto disruption

8th February 2019

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor

     

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Everyday we read about electric vehicles taking over from conventional petrol and diesel vehicles. Even though the accuracy of many of these reports is challenged by those doing convincing calculations, at the end of the day, the automotive market is going to be disrupted in one way or another, which has huge implications for South Africa’s platinum mining business.

This is because platinum-group metals (PGMs) have become too dependent on the automotive industry, ever since the US’s Clean Air Act of 1970 opened the way for the use of PGMs to reduce vehicle emission, which tied PGM-using catalytic converter technology to the automotive sector.

Now, even the most benign of projections point to catalytic converters no longer being a feature of all new vehicles in the years ahead.

The projection of CPM Group MD and founder Jeffrey Christian, which is largely in line with those of the automotive industry itself and of the electricity generating industries, is that, by 2050, a third of vehicles being manufactured might be vehicles that no longer require PGMs.

As 31 years is a blink of an eye in PGM mining terms, we agree wholeheartedly with CPM that the world’s PGMs producers should not waste any time in starting an intensive search for ways to close the significant demand gap that now seems inevitable.

CPM has also come up with a suggestion, which we think is very promising: the industry should put increased focus on the commercialisation of viable patents that involve the use of PGMs.

“There are many, many, many patents for platinum and palladium uses and we need to see some of those commercialised so that platinum, palladium and rhodium are not dependent on the auto industry for 40% or 60% or 80% of their demand, but rather that they have a lot of other uses that have smaller market shares,” says Christian, whose full video interview can be accessed on page 9 of this edition of Mining Weekly.

For long, the PGMs industry has projected the possibility of platinum-using hydrogen fuel cells moving into the demand gap left by vehicles that no longer require catalytic converters.

But Christian expresses convincing scepticism about this happening. He contends that the safe and affordable hydrogen infrastructure required by platinum-catalysed hydrogen fuel cells is more likely to be snapped up by cheaper alternatives to fuel cells, he argues have high capital and operating costs and can also be catalysed by metals like cobalt.

His outline of clean hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines is certainly persuasive. His calculations put the manufacturing cost of hydrogen internal combustion engines at $1 500 – half the cost of his calculation of $3 000 for petroleum internal combustion engines, one-seventh of the cost of electric battery packs – which he puts at $10 000 apiece – and one-twentieth of the cost of platinum- using fuel cell stacks, which hit a heady $30 000.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

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