Heavy industry, not cars, may be the best end use for hydrogen fuel cells

PLATINUM is the secret ingredient that cools engines powered by fuel cells that mix oxygen from the atmosphere with hydrogen in a tank producing electricity and water … Simple, right? You may not have been a whizz in school chemistry, but it’s the future of the heavy automotive industry, some say.

According to a report by Morgan Stanley analysts, German carmaker Volkswagen sees less potential in hydrogen-powered fuel cells in its passenger cars compared with electric battery technology. There’s a lack of source-to-wheel energy efficiency, its engineers have found.

That sounds like a setback for the hydrogen fuel cell and for the green economy; after all, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have zero tailpipe emissions. Even including FCEVs in commercial heavy-duty vehicles – Daimler is in joint venture with Volvo Trucks to develop a commercial FCEV – it is still only absorption of the technology into 27% of annual vehicle production.

However, in the utilities sector, hydrogen can be used as a means of transporting and storing energy through the conversion of electricity and water to gas and vice-versa, all done using fuel cells, says Morgan Stanley. Given the variability in renewable power, and the risk of curtailment, this sounds like a viable power alternative.

According to Bloomberg News, Chinese companies had invested $1bn in the fuel cell industry by mid-2019 and more than $17bn more is to come. Momentum for hydrogen technology is there, but what, ultimately, does it mean for platinum demand?

Says Morgan Stanley: “The platinum market currently sits in a large surplus, and over the near to medium term palladium for platinum substitution in conventional internal combustion engine autocatalysis applications likely holds the key to a market rebalancing.

“However, over the longer term, the establishment of base demand from the hydrogen economy, coupled with a resurgence in jewellery demand, could hold the key for sector sustainability.”

This article was first published in the Mining Yearbook 2020 which is available here: https://www.miningmx.com/the-mining-yearbook-2020/