WASHINGTON - The precious metal platinum will be available in sufficient quantities and at reasonable prices for fuel cells to power millions of vehicles, the platinum industry says.
Some automotive engineers and analysts worry that platinum is too expensive and too rare for fuel cells to be produced in the numbers needed for the technology to be a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine.
"We have a perception problem," says Marcus Nurdin, managing director of the International Platinum Association, based in Frankfurt.
Nurdin says the same worries existed a generation ago when clean-air rules drove the automobile industry to install catalytic converters to curb tailpipe pollution. Now 95 percent of the light-duty vehicles in the world are built with catalytic converters, and the precious metals industry is meeting demand comfortably, he claims.
"A remarkably little goes a remarkably long way," Nurdin says. Just 180 tons of platinum and 220 tons of a sister metal, palladium, were produced worldwide last year. South Africa and Russia are the main sources.
Eric Martens, group vice president of Engelhard Corp. of Iselin, N.J., a catalytic converter maker and member of the platinum association, says that as a technology matures, automakers find ways to use less precious metal.
A catalytic converter contains only about 5 grams of precious metal.
Current fuel cell stacks require 60 to 100 grams of platinum. Nurdin and Martens estimate that by the time they would be mass produced, 75-kilowatt fuel cells would need as little as 15 to 20 grams. So at today's price of just more than $600 an ounce, the platinum for such a fuel cell would cost about $400.
Generally, automakers describe a fuel cell's need for precious metal as just one of a large number of complex and interrelated materials and manufacturing obstacles that need to be overcome before the technology is competitive in performance and cost with gasoline engines.
Nurdin says he and Martens were in Washington last week not to lobby government but to spread information to federal agencies, the news media and others and to correct misperceptions.
Nurdin says he is not concerned that researchers will find an alternative to precious metal for use in fuel cell membranes, but he is trying to keep society from passing up the benefits offered by fuel cells because of misinformation.
Fuel cells produce electricity but no pollution by combining oxygen from the air and hydrogen from a fuel source. Mass-produced fuel cell vehicles are not expected until 2010 or later.