Since the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen has been known more for its risks than its uses as a fuel component. In its liquid form it has of course been used as rocket fuel, and more recently it has made an entrance as a potential alternative to lithium-ion batteries in cars. Not only is lithium-ion not free from hazards itself, the batteries also add more weight and volume to a device than a tank full of H2. Setting up a supply infrastructure remains an issue, and storage risks make people uncomfortable.
What if hydrogen could be produced in its metallic form? A metal, easy and safe to transport and store? What if this metal could be readily re-converted to its liquid state as needed to be used in fuel cells? A vision of a distant future, perhaps, but professor Isaac Silvera of Harvard University claims to have just taken the first step, the creation of metallic hydrogen. I had a very interesting conversation with him, the product of which was just published on Kitco News. Here is the link: http://www.kitco.com/commentaries/2017-03-21/Metallic-Hydrogen-a-New-Area-in-Hydrogen-Storage.html
Nikola – Mr. Tesla’s first name, chosen not by chance, I suppose, as the name for the “other” electric car company completely focused on heavy duty trucks. Interestingly, although the cars are – strictly speaking – battery powered, Trevor Milton and his team chose to add a hydrogen fuel cell for clean charging, and range extension.
And it doesn’t stop there – Nikola Motors wants the hydrogen to be produced in sustainable ways, too, and is therefore building a network of solar farms across the country to do so.
One topic of my annual “Metal Megatrends” paper at the recent IPMI conference in Phoenix was sustainable mobility, and its impacts on metal consumption. In fact, if you read the story of how my column for Kitco News started four years ago (see the “Welcome” page of this blog), we have now reached a point where we can answer the question: “What if all cars in the world were electric?”.
While my paper (available through the IPMI in a little while) was also critical regarding Tesla executives’ role in trash talking hydrogen it should also be disclosed that I am on the long list of people having pre-ordered a Model 3, and I share the admiration of Elon Musk by those who say he is shaping the world by his visions, perhaps in more significant ways than Steve Jobs ever has.
As a result of adding up all the facts in front of us the only logical conclusion is that the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to an end. There will be a long tail, of course, with cars being passed on from some regions of the world to others, and with heavy duty engines as an unresolved issue. What about collector’s cars? Will a “boutique” style infrastructure emerge where we buy fuel in new ways, or is it back to the pharmacy like in the early days of the automobile?
Last but certainly not least: what will happen to pgm markets in the meantime? Assuming that the fuel cell will eventually gain traction, the loss of platinum on emission control catalysts might be offset by the growth of the FCEV. Palladium, which is already used in some fuel cells, might once again play a role as a substitute. Only for rhodium the direction is unclear in this environment.
That said, the unique properties of precious metals have always made them desirable, if not irreplaceable, in technology applications. I am optimistic that new uses will emerge as technologies advance further.
Macel Schreier is one of this year´s winners of the IPMI´s prestigious Student Awards. We had a long conversation at the conference and I attended his presentation on the work he is doing at his university. It was remarkable enough to warrant a follow-up on solar fuels, the result of which was just published on Kitco News. Click here to read the entire interview.
Hard to believe but it has been two years since my first Kitco News article on technology metals appeared. The debut piece was about BMW’s worldwide unveiling of the i3, a car destined to change society as we know it (see my report here). Two years later, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are still associated with Tesla more than anyone else, including Nissan and their rather successful “Leaf”, the unsung hero of this public relations battle. And, as I reported in my recent IPMI conference paper, BEVs aren’t doing so well.
Of course the Tesla isn’t priced for the masses and the BMW i3’s design may be, well, polarizing. But that is not the answer.
First and foremost, society doesn’t want to be transformed. Explanations on why BEVs are more environmentally friendly than standard cars aren’t always conclusive but in truth, a majority of consumers will always decide with their wallets, decide for convenience, decide for size, decide for familiarity. BEVs depend on charging stations; they generally have a short range leaving consumers anxious of running out of power, a very real threat, as I experienced myself.
The average BEV will achieve around 130km / 80 miles of range on a normal day. Alas, it could be half of that in cold or hot weather. Several suppliers are working on doubling their vehicle’s range, which leads us to the main culprit: lithium! As became obvious in the slow progression of performance improvements, and as was confirmed by several of my guests on “Tech Metals Insider”, lithium ion battery technology produces performance gains of just 7-8% annually. It’s the reason why power-drained smartphone users gather around airport charging stations like Neanderthals around a camp fire, and it is why BEVs are losing momentum.
Tesla’s success remains fragile in light of forever new delays in releasing new models, and BMW’s i3 continues to be a rare sight on public roads with less than 800 units sold monthly in the USA (Source: InsideEV.com), about half as many as Nissan’s Leaf. Low gasoline prices drove yet another stake in the market, removing the cost incentive from the equation with no end in sight.
So where do we go from here? After the BEVs first demise a hundred years ago, after GM “killed the electric car” several decades ago, is the technology staring down the barrel of a gun yet again? I surely hope not, and my hopes rest on hydrogen electric technology (FCEVs), a topic for another day. Unfortunately, many BEV owners including Tesla’s own Elon Musk are still viewing the technology as their enemy, not their savior.
Besides my second anniversary as a contributing writer to Kitco News, 2015 also marks the market introduction of the Toyota Mirai, a car that will hopefully be as popular as the company’s “Prius” was, the “first of many”, as the name translates. Where will we be two years from today? Lithium batteries will be 14-16% more efficient. But society may be 100% on the move to embracing new sources of energy.