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Shortage of Platinum Might Be a Hurdle for Hydrogen Cars

Over the last couple of months, there has been a lot of hype around hydrogen-powered cars, with Toyota, Honda and Hyundai planning to roll out hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2015, claiming that they have many advantages over electric and hybrid vehicles. They have the potential to be the best alternative to conventional cars and a mainstream public transport option in the long run. But, as with other alternative fuel cars, there are many challenges that hydrogen cars have to overcome before they can become mainstream.

While vehicle cost, the questionable durability of fuel cell power systems, and the lack of refueling infrastructure used to be considered as the biggest challenges for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, another potential issue has come up recently, that will be pretty hard to resolve and might seriously threaten the future of hydrogen cars. As General Electric says, the imminent shortage of platinum could prevent a more widespread adoption of hydrogen-powered cars. Vlatko Vlatkovic, the chief engineer for the Power Conversion division of General Electric, said that fuel cell vehicles may become a niche product due to the increasing price of platinum.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he said that there is a shortage of platinum, and existing proven reserves are not enough to support a mass production of hydrogen-powered cars. This is a very serious hurdle, since platinum is an essential part of fuel cell power systems, where it is used as a catalyst in catalytic converters. He added: “It’s almost impossible to do a good fuel cell without platinum as a catalyst… Very little goes in, but if you scale it up, there’s not enough platinum in the world.”

Even though there have been attempts by some automakers, such as General Motors and Toyota, to reduce the use of platinum and develop hydrogen-powered cars that can work without this element, it’s still an integral component of the manufacturing process.

Nowadays, the price for an ounce of platinum is a whopping $1,400, which is one of the factors that make hydrogen-powered cars so expensive. Alternatively, automakers can use palladium as a catalyst, which costs $760 an ounce, but it is far from the ideal solution, because it’s not as stable and as active as platinum.

Because platinum is so expensive, companies that are determined to develop viable hydrogen fuel cell cars are looking for ways to build fuel cell power systems that won’t be so dependable on this scarce metal. Toyota, for instance, has reduced the platinum use in their catalytic converters to about 30 grams, and their aim is to bring it further down, to around 20 grams, which is what is being used in existing diesel catalytic converters. This is part of Toyota’s efforts to reduce the cost of its hydrogen-powered vehicle that is supposed to be launched in 2015, to $50,000, which is a significant improvement compared to the initial predictions, that had set the price to $100,000.

However, even if manufacturers manage to develop fuel cells that can work with much less platinum, they would still rely on this expensive metal to a certain extent, which means that fuel cell cars will probably never be as affordable as conventional, gasoline-powered cars, or even electric and hybrid vehicles, for that matter.

Article by Jordan, appearing courtesy 2GreenEnergy.