Effervescent multi-entrepreneur Elon Musk famously described hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles as ‘mind-bogglingly silly’. The 200,000-plus folks employed in SA’s platinum mines higher hope he’s mistaken, as a result of if he’s proper, the platinum trade is destined to go the identical manner as SA’s gold trade.
The perilous way forward for the platinum trade relies upon largely on the event of the hydrogen fuel-cell automotive, and the omens look fairly dangerous –however not as dangerous as popularly believed. This battle is just not carried out but; not by an extended shot.
In 2016, Elon Musk, the conceiver and CEO of electrical car firm Tesla, was requested about hydrogen vehicles. Not one to carry again, Musk went on a well-known rant, saying there have been a number of rebuttals to the concept of a hydrogen-powered automotive, which might turn out to be more and more clear over time.
It’s very troublesome to make hydrogen and retailer it to be used in a automotive, he mentioned. Electrolysis (the method which makes use of platinum to create the electrical energy) is an especially inefficient power manufacturing system, roughly half as environment friendly as simply utilizing battery energy. The hydrogen atom is pernicious and onerous to manage. If you happen to do get a leak, it’s invisible and very harmful.
And so he went on. General, the expertise was “extraordinarily foolish”, he mentioned.
What Musk meant by the “pernicious” nature of hydrogen is that, in its pure state, hydrogen is a fuel. In an effort to management it and use it successfully, it needs to be massively pressurised or cooled to supply a liquid. That provides enormous prices to the infrastructure and makes manufacturing merchandise that use it technically difficult. The hydrogen atom is so small, it might probably, in its fuel type, escape by means of metal.
Musk discovered shocking assist in 2016 when Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer of the one hydrogen automotive on the market on the time, Toyota’s Mirai, mentioned “Elon Musk is true — it’s higher to cost the electrical automotive immediately by plugging in”.
And but. And but.
Hydrogen is among the most out there chemical compounds within the universe. It’s in every single place. Powering one thing with hydrogen generates steam; it’s fabulously environmentally engaging. The air that comes out of the engine is cleaner than the air that goes in. The vehicles actually scrub the environment.
That is partly why are actually three giant automotive firms dedicated to producing hydrogen vehicles. Even Tanaka mentioned hydrogen stays a viable various to gasoline, and Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada mentioned in 2016, “We’re not about to surrender on hydrogen electrical fuel-cell expertise in any respect.”
However, even essentially the most ardent hydrogen supporters would acknowledge that it’s been uphill from there. Between 2016 and now, the electrical automotive has been the foremost speaking level within the automotive trade, and automotive firms are dashing out new EVs (electrical automobiles) at a livid charge. Musk’s Tesla is now churning out vehicles, and the Tesla Mannequin three outsold the equal fashions of BMW, Mercedes and Audi in Europe in June 2019. Sure, in Europe.
There are actually about 5,000 Mirai vehicles on the roads, bought over the previous 4 years. That’s the identical variety of Mannequin 3s that Tesla is producing each week.
Along with the shortage of hydrogen fuelling stations, there are two different issues. The bottom value of a Mirai is round $60,000, about the identical as Hyundai’s Nexo Blue. A Tesla Mannequin three prices just a little greater than half that, illustrating the comparative building complexity.
And the price of filling up with hydrogen is roughly 3 times as a lot as it could value to replenish what’s now derisively referred to as an “ICE” (inner combustion engine) automotive within the US. (In Europe, for numerous causes, the prices are about the identical). Fuelling is so costly, automotive firms are overlaying the gas prices for hydrogen vehicles for 3 years.
So on the face of it, Musk is completely proper. We’re stuffed. However, it seems, it’s not fairly so simple as that.
To get a unique perspective, I spoke to Andrew Hinkly, the CEO of AP Ventures, which is the one funding fund on the earth that focuses on downstream makes use of of platinum group metals (PGMs). AP Ventures, unsurprisingly, emerged out of AngloPlatinum and can also be supported by the Public Funding Company.
AP Ventures started final 12 months and has invested in 9 high-growth start-up firms within the US and Europe. The primary fund is absolutely invested, and the second fund raised $90-million.
I requested Hinkly if Musk was silly to name hydrogen gas cell automobiles silly, hoping he would reply with an emphatic “sure”. Sadly, he went for a extra nuanced response.
The alternatives for hydrogen usually are not essentially in opposition to EVs however in affiliation with them, he mentioned. “You wouldn’t use a corkscrew to open a bottle of beer”, he added, and went on to supply a number of examples.
In an industrial setting, the time it takes to recharge a EV battery is an issue. So when you’ve got three eight-hour shifts transferring packages round in a manufacturing unit, hydrogen-powered machines which you can refuel in a couple of minutes make extra sense. This is the reason Amazon is changing its battery forklifts with hydrogen-powered machines.
Batteries additionally are inclined to diminish in energy as they get to the tip of their lifespan, which may be tolerable in a automotive, however not in a manufacturing unit the place optimum energy is required 100% of the time.
Lengthy-range, heavy-use automobiles may be higher suited to hydrogen energy, which is why Anglo Platinum has undertaken to transform its mining automobiles to fuel-cell expertise.
Greater than that, among the issues of hydrogen storage are being solved. One among AP Ventures’ investments, a German firm referred to as Hydrogenious, has gained every kind of German prizes for growing a expertise that enables hydrogen to be transported in a liquid type utilizing compression and cooling. That is huge, and explains why the variety of hydrogen gas stations in Germany is prone to double within the subsequent couple of years.
Different firms are experimenting with the environment friendly creation of hydrogen, which may very well be used as a manner of storing extra power manufacturing, together with because it occurs, the surplus daytime or summer time manufacturing of solar energy.
Then there may be one other difficult little challenge. One of many important criticisms of hydrogen energy is that, not like the electrical energy community, a hydrogen community must be constructed, and who’s going to try this?
However the identical is considerably true of the EV system and that drawback pertains to among the base merchandise in lithium-ion batteries. The battery requires cobalt, which is produced primarily within the DRC, though cobalt is a by-product of copper mining which is mined everywhere in the store, so it’s much less of an issue.
The problem is lithium, which is produced primarily in China and within the intersection between Peru, Argentina and Chile, though there are giant deposits in Australia.
Lithium manufacturing has been booming over the previous few years, and nearly doubled in 2018 to round 80,000 metric tons. But it surely has by no means been a excessive quantity demand product and earlier than final 12 months, about 40,000 metric tons had been produced yearly for years. So numerous digging must occur, and shortly.
Contemplate this. It takes about 63kg of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), of which 19% or 12kg is lithium, to make a 70kWh Tesla battery. Meaning in the event you used your entire 2018 manufacturing for automotive batteries you might in all probability make about three million vehicles.
That seems like a lot, and in the intervening time it’s, however the world produces about 70 million vehicles a 12 months. To succeed in its near-term goal of, say, satisfying 1 / 4 of the world’s car demand with EVs, lithium manufacturing has to quadruple – and quick. That is going down, primarily in Australia, at such a quick tempo that the current value of lithium has declined by about 40%, satirically at precisely the time EVs are taking off. So lithium mines may develop quick, however nowhere close to the required charge.
Musk himself inadvertently let slip in 2018 he was involved about lithium manufacturing, saying Tesla would possibly go into the mining enterprise.
Hinkly says the platinum trade infrastructure is already established, and the product itself, platinum, is absolutely recyclable. “There isn’t a brand new extractive requirement; we’re simply repurposing minerals which might be already being mined.”.
I requested Hinkly what can be the tipping level that will signify hydrogen gas cells had been getting actual traction. He mentioned it was unlikely to be a crescendo impact, that there can be extra adoption the place it is sensible commercially.
Eariler in 2019, the primary double-decker hydrogen buses had been put into operation; Germany is now dedicated to 80 hydrogen gas stations, which suggests you gained’t be greater than 300km (about half a fuel-cell automotive’s vary) from a fuelling level on a significant route. The primary Chinese language exports of fuel-cell vehicles are about to start out, and extra cargo automobiles, ferries, and truck are within the planning phases.
Auditing agency KPMG does an influential annual survey of the automotive trade, and in 2017, 78% of 1,000-odd auto executives mentioned they imagine hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars. The 2019 version estimated that the market in 2040 can be evenly cut up between EVs, ICE vehicles, hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles.
“It is going to be piece by piece,” Hinkly mentioned. The SA mining trade higher hope he’s proper. BM
In other news…
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It’s a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn’t going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba:
“A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”
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