The bubbly multi-entrepreneur Elon Musk described the hydrogen drive as a famously fuel-cell car as "stunning stupid." The over 200,000 workers in the SA platinum mines hope he is wrong, because if he is right, the platinum industry will go the same way as the SA gold industry.
The dangerous future of the platinum industry largely depends on the development of the hydrogen fuel cell car, and the omen looks pretty bad ̵
In 2016, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, was questioned about hydrogen cars. Musk was not one who held back, and went for a famous slogan. He said there were several refutations against the idea of a hydrogen-powered car that would become more and more apparent over time.
It is very difficult to produce and store hydrogen for use in a car, he said. Electrolysis (the process of using platinum for power generation) is an extremely inefficient power generation system that is about half as efficient as the use of battery power. The hydrogen atom is harmful and difficult to control. If you get a leak, it is invisible and extremely dangerous.
And so he went on. Overall, the technology was "extremely silly," he said.
What Musk means by the "harmful" nature of hydrogen is that hydrogen in its natural state is a gas. To control it and use it effectively, it must be massively pressurized or cooled to produce a liquid. This significantly increases infrastructure costs and makes the manufacture of products that use them technically difficult. The hydrogen atom is so small that it can escape through steel in its gaseous form.
Musk found surprising support in 2016, when Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer of the one hydrogen car, said "Elon Musk is right – it's better to charge the electric car directly by plugging in."
And yet. And yet.
Hydrogen is one of the most commonly available chemicals in the universe. It is everywhere. If you drive something with hydrogen, you get steam. it's fabulously eco-friendly. The air exiting the engine is cleaner than the air entering. The cars literally scrub the atmosphere.
This is part of the reason why three major automakers now commit to producing hydrogen cars. Even Tanaka said hydrogen remains a viable alternative to gasoline, and Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said in 2016, "We will not give up hydrogen technology for electric fuel cells at all."
But even the hottest hydrogen supporters would acknowledge it has gone uphill from there. Between 2016 and now, the electric car was the main talk in the auto industry, and automakers are rapidly selling new electric vehicles. Musk's Tesla is now producing cars, and the Tesla Model 3 sold in June 2019 the corresponding models of BMW, Mercedes and Audi in Europe. Yes, in Europe.
Currently, about 5,000 Mirai cars are sold on the roads the last four years. That's the same number of Model 3s Tesla produces each week.
Besides the lack of hydrogen refueling stations, there are two more problems. The base price for a Mirai is about $ 60,000 and is about the same as the price of Hyundai's Nexo Blue. A Tesla Model 3 costs a little more than half, which illustrates the comparative complexity of the structure.
And the cost of filling with hydrogen is about three times the cost of refueling today's "ICE" (internal combustion engine) in the US. (In Europe, the costs are about the same for a variety of reasons). Refueling is so expensive that car companies take over the fuel costs of hydrogen cars for three years.
At first glance Musk is absolutely right. We are stuffed. However, it turns out that this is not so easy.
To get another perspective, I talked with Andrew Hinkly, CEO of AP Ventures, the world's only mutual fund focused on downstream uses of platinum group metals (PGMs). Not surprisingly, AP Ventures emerged from AngloPlatinum and is also supported by the Public Investment Corporation.
Founded last year, AP Ventures has invested in nine high-growth start-up companies in the US and Europe. The first fund is fully invested and the second fund raised $ 90 million.
I asked Hinkly if Musk was dumb to call stupid hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the hope that he would respond with a strong "yes". Unfortunately, he opted for a more differentiated answer.
The possibilities for hydrogen are not necessarily in contrast to electric vehicles, but in connection with them, he said. "They would not use a corkscrew to open a bottle of beer," he added, providing a series of examples.
In an industrial environment, the time needed to recharge an EV battery is a problem. So if you have three eight-hour shifts that move packages in a factory, hydrogen-powered machines that can refuel in minutes are more useful. That's why Amazon is replacing its battery stackers with hydrogen-powered machines.
The batteries also tend to reduce their performance when they reach the end of their lifespan, which could be bearable in a car, but not in a factory where it is optimal. Energy is needed 100% of the time.
Long-range and heavy-duty vehicles may be better suited for hydrogen propulsion, which is why Anglo Platinum has committed to convert its mining vehicles to fuel cell technology.
In addition, some problems of hydrogen storage are solved. One of the investments by AP Ventures, a German company called Hydrogenious, has won numerous German awards for the development of a technology that can transport hydrogen in liquid form using compression and cooling. That's a big one and explains why the number of hydrogen refueling stations in Germany is expected to double over the next few years.
Other companies are experimenting with the efficient production of hydrogen, which can be used as a reservoir for excess energy production, including surplus daily or summer solar energy production.
Then there is another difficulty small problem. One of the main reasons for the criticism of hydrogen power is that in contrast to the electricity grid, a hydrogen network has to be built, and who will do that?
The same is true of the EV system, and this problem affects some of the base products in lithium-ion batteries. The battery requires cobalt, which is mainly produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, cobalt is a by-product of copper mining, which is mined throughout the factory.
The problem is lithium, which is mainly produced in China and at the intersection of Peru, Argentina and Chile, although there are large deposits in Australia.
Lithium production boomed in recent years and nearly doubled in 2018 to around 80,000 tonnes. However, it has never been a high-demand product, and last year, over 40,000 tons were produced annually over the years. So a lot has to be dug, and soon.
Consider this. A 70kWh Tesla battery requires about 63kg of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3), of which 19% or 12kg is lithium. In other words, if you use all of the 2018 car battery production, you could probably make three million cars.
That sounds like a lot, and right now it is so, but the world produces about 70 million cars a year. To meet the short-term goal of, for example, covering one quarter of global vehicle demand with electric vehicles, lithium production must quadruple – and fast. This is happening at such a fast pace, especially in Australia, that, ironically, the price of lithium has lately dropped by about 40% at the time of the launch of electric vehicles. This has allowed lithium mines to develop rapidly, but by far not at the required speed.
Musk himself inadvertently succumbed to 2018, worried about lithium production and said Tesla could enter mining.
Hinkly says the platinum industry infrastructure is already established and the product itself, platinum, can be fully recycled. We're only using minerals that are already being mined. "
I asked Hinkly what would be the turning point that would mean that hydrogen fuel cells would get real traction and he said it was unlikely that there would be a crescendo effect that would make it more acceptable if it made commercial sense.
Eariler put the first biplane hydrogen buses into service in 2019, Germany has now committed to 80 hydrogen refueling stations, which means you no more than 300 km (about half the range of a fuel cell car) from a gas station on a main line, and the first Chinese exports of fuel cell cars are about to start, and more freight vehicles, ferries and trucks are in the planning stage.  The accounting firm KPMG conducts an influential annual survey in the Aut By 2017, 78 percent of the approximately 1,000 auto executives believe that hydrogen fuel cells will have a better future in the long run than electric cars. The 2019 version estimated that by 2040, the market would be evenly split between electric vehicles, ICE vehicles, hybrids and fuel cell vehicles.
" It will be little by little," said Hinkly. The SA mining industry hopes better that he is right. BM
In other news …
The 18th of July marks the day of Nelson Mandela. Everywhere in the country, South African citizens dedicate 67 minutes to charity in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of the few opportunities in South Africa where we come together as a nation to pursue a common cause. An annual 67 minutes are not enough.
In the words of Madiba:
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