The Drive To Hydrogen Fuels Takes Off Again After 30 Years
Finweek English|14 May 2021
In the 1990s, fuel-cell electric vehicles were all the rage. Then it went silent. Now, as climate change sits at the top of investors’ agenda, this technology is accelerating again.
David McKay

It might take ten years before hydrogen fuel technology is cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuels, according to Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American.

Speaking during the launch of the firm’s sustainability report – which will become a bi-annual event in the future owing to increased investor attention on the matter – Cutifani said development efforts over the next two to three years will be “crucial”.

That’s the time frame given to a joint research effort between Anglo’s 80%-owned Anglo-American Platinum (Amplats) and Umicore, a Belgian materials handling and recycling company. The parties are hoping to prove up the chemistry that would enable hydrogen fuel to be transported to forecourts in tankers akin to the current delivery of petroleum.

Being able to refuel a fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) quickly and inexpensively is the key to the adoption of the technology as a secondary fuel option (the primary usage of hydrogen being in the industry). Currently, a refueling point requires hydrogen to be electrolyzed.

“It’s a journey with Umicore in understanding how we use the new metals in these new applications,” said Cutifani. “It’s a two- to five-year period, but we’re looking out beyond 2030,” he said.

The technology Amplats and Umicore is investigating is having hydrogen bond to a liquid that’s then converted by a FCEV, rich in platinum group metals (PGMs), specifically platinum and the lesser-known element, iridium. This is the “new” metal to which Cutifani refers.

It should be noted that there’s nothing especially new about fuel cells. During the 1990s there was a lot of excited talk about their impact on platinum demand. But today’s enthusiasm comes on the back of a structural deficit in PGMs that has shone a light on the market role of other metals in the PGM basket.

Take rhodium: it is a relatively junior member of the PGM family in terms of its occurrence with other elements, and yet it currently comprises as much as half of total metal revenues for PGM producers. What, then, could one expect of another lesser-known metal – iridium – which has application to fuel-cell technology?

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