Fuel cells: is there enough platinum? Yes!

In late March, Bloomberg posted an article – ‘Fuel-Cell Boom Hampered by Need for Platinum, GE Says’ – debating the future of fuel cells in the context of a limited supply of platinum. While the article was of interest, some of the information presented was inaccurate. This blog post seeks to provide a more balanced and informed view of the requirement for platinum in fuel cells.

Platinum is indeed highly important in the production of fuel cells, it serves as a catalyst that facilitates the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen producing electricity with only water as a by-product.

However, unlike many other metals, platinum is almost always recycled. As a result, most of the platinum mined is still available for use and primary platinum is only part of the total resource. A report from a US Geological Survey revealed that the world platinum production capacity, an approximation of maximum supply, could increase by as much as 69,000 kg from primary capacity and 22,000 kg from recycling. Recycling rates are likely to be significant as platinum can be efficiently recycled from fuel cells.

It has been suggested in the past that with the mass commercialisation of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), the world’s annual platinum production will fail significantly to meet demand. However, a report presented to the DoE shows that the platinum industry has the potential to meet a scenario where FCEVs achieve 50% market penetration by 2050. Also, there is very little to suggest that platinum supply is dwindling. Studies have concluded that there are sufficient accessible reserves to increase supply by up to 5% per year for each of the next 50 years which will allow for the build-up of a fleet of 1.7 billion FCEVS. Thus, detailed studies of platinum availability suggest that this should not be a limiting factor in the commercialisation of fuel cells.

Companies in the fuel cell space continue to improve performance while lowering platinum loading. According to the US DoE, the amount of platinum in PEM fuel cells has decreased by around 80% during the past decade. This trend is expected to continue, albeit at a reduced rate with smaller incremental improvements.

Furthermore, Toyota recently announced that the latest iteration of its fuel cell has reduced platinum loadings to around 30 g. With a target sale price of $50,000 for its fuel cell vehicle, the metal would contribute less than 3% of the total vehicle cost. A significant component, but by no means prohibitive or a showstopper.

To conclude, while the demand for platinum will undoubtedly increase as fuel cell technology becomes mainstream, there will continue to be a ready supply of the metal to support the on-going commercialisation of this exciting technology.

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