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Heraeus Precious Appraisal

  • Edition 43 - 17 December 2018

Platinum is gearing up for the hydrogen economy

Technological, legislative and commercial drivers have aligned to make the hydrogen economy viable now. Renewable energy (wind and solar) is ever-more efficient and cost competitive, so ‘green’ hydrogen can be readily produced. Hydrogen is a flexible store of renewable energy, helping grid balancing and decarbonisation of energy production. Electrolysers produce hydrogen fuel by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, whereas fuel cells reverse the process, generating electricity and water. Electrolysers are scalable and much bigger than the fuel cell in a car.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) technology uses platinum and iridium catalysts. Several electrolyser technologies with different capital costs, lifetimes and efficiencies compete in this expanding market. PEM is the main technology and is forecast to add much of the new capacity over the next decade. Production scale-up and component standardisation are rapidly bringing PEM electrolyser costs down to commercially competitive levels. Currently, several thousand ounces of platinum are used annually and this will grow as the technology is rolled out, potentially exceeding 100 koz p.a. in the late 2020s. With a surplus market the additional demand can easily be met.

Hydrogen fuelling stations are already operational, with more planned in most major automotive markets. The Hydrogen Council estimates hydrogen fuelling stations worldwide will increase from 375 in 2017 to >1,100 in 2020. The Korean government now plans to have 310 hydrogen stations by 2022. Hyundai is building a new factory to expand annual fuel cell production to 40,000 units also by 2022. Hydrogen fuel costs per mile are somewhat higher than petrol, but as the infrastructure is developed, hydrogen costs will become competitive.

Heavy commercial and utility vehicles are driving demand for electrolysers and fuel cells in the nearer term using a depot model operating fixed routes. Electrification using hydrogen-powered fuel cells is a highly practical alternative to diesel engines for buses, trains, delivery vans, refuse trucks and ferries, helping to improve air quality and reduce noise in densely populated areas.

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