Critical raw materials in strategic technologies - Relevant raw materials used in in fuel cells (FCs)
- May 30, 2021 7:54 pm GMT
The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions
Raw materials are crucial to the economy. They form a strong industrial base in which a wide range of goods and applications of daily life as well as modern technologies are produced. Reliable and unhindered access to certain raw materials froms worldwide a upcoming challenge to be solved. Raw materials for the transition to carbon neutrality:
the demand will increase in the future for most raw materials used in solar and wind energy technologies.
For some of them, the needs in 2050 may exceed current supply levels if no action is taken. Most of the renewable energy will be produced by wind turbines and solar panels. The rate of deployment of these technologies will increase rapidly, and so will the demand of raw materials needed to build them.
Demand for solar and wind technology materials will also increase, exponentially. Although materials are expected to be used more efficiently in the future, the overall demand will mainly depend on the volume of renewable technologies that will be deployed. Under the most optimistic assumptions for materials use, the demand for most specific materials would decrease.
Supplychain solutions for critical raw materials needed for batteries, electric motors and other components in electric vehicles as electric vehicles are deployed en masse. The supply of critical raw materials used in their manufacture will come under pressure and gain more importance.
In addition, there is uncertainty about the speed at which electric vehicle technologies are evolving – affecting the type and quantities of critical raw materials required – and whether alternative technologies or solutions will become available.
Supplies of critical minerals essential for key clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines need to pick up sharply over the coming decades to meet the world’s climate goals, creating potential energy security hazards that governments must act now to address, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
In the medium to long-term, fuel cells (FCs) together with hydrogen fuel supply will offer an attractive potential clean energy solution. FCs can contribute significantly to sustainable and secure energy supply systems. The technology connects two basic future energy carriers: electricity and hydrogen.
FCs are electrochemical devices that convert fuel such as hydrogen directly to electricity without combustion. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the FCs to form water and releases electrons producing an electric current through an external circuit. Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell (PEM FC) technology is the most popular type of FC.
FCs are highly efficient in terms of energy conversion, reduce air pollution and are capable of running on fuels produced from renewable resources. Several FC types are today available (Figure 13), capable of operating under different conditions depending on the type of fuel, operation temperature and the type of electrolyte such as:
Polymer Electrolyte Membrane FC (PEM FC)
Phosphoric Acid F (PA FC)
Alkaline FC (A FC)
Molten Carbonate FC (MC FC)
Solid Oxide FC (SO FC)
Direct-Methanol FC (DM FC)
Overview of various fuel cell types and operation conditions
PEM FC has a high power density and operates at relatively low temperatures compared to other FC types, making it ideal for the automotive sector, telecommunications, forklifts, primary systems, data centres and backup power systems. Although FC technology has come a long way in technology maturity, large-scale deployment in domestic and industrial segments has not yet taken place.
Today, the FCs are used in three main areas: stationary power generation (ca. 67% market share), transportation (ca. 32%), and portable power generation (<1%). The FCs market for the automotive industry is expected to grow significantly in the future. An increasing demand for FCs is also expected in material-handling vehicles, light-duty vehicles, buses, and the aerospace sector.
FCs use catalysts, commonly made from platinum or platinum-group metals (PGMs), for the fuel to power conversion. Current research focuses on reducing or eliminating these expensive metals from catalysts, and on increased activity and durability. A significant reduction has been achieved in the recent years. Due to active dematerialisation efforts, the PGM intensities in PEM FCs fell by 80% since 2005 (Leader, Gaustad, and Babbitt, 2019).
According to the European Commission’s FC and hydrogen joint undertaking (FCH JU), the amount of platinum in the next generation of FC vehicles will reach similar levels to that used in the catalytic converters of diesel vehicles, which corresponds to 3-7 grams (Reuters Business News, 2018). This could significantly enable large-scale commercialisation of FC-powered vehicles. Most FCs have a standard design in which two electrodes are separated by an ion-conducting electrolyte.
The heart of a PEM FC is the membrane electrode assembly (MEA), which includes five basic components: membrane, anode catalyst layer, cathode catalyst layer and two gas diffusion layers (GDLs) one for each electrode. On overview of the raw materials adopted in FCs is shown below. The materials and components related to the hydrogen production and storage were also considered in this analysis.
Relevant raw materials used in in fuel cells (FCs)
as catalyst replacing the more expensive platinum in PEM fuel cell
as catalyst replacing part of Pt (e.g. as Pt-Pd alloy)
the most effective electrocatalyst for both the cathode and anode
leading material for construction of bipolar plates
in alloys with Ni for anode catalyst (SOFC), in wires and conductive parts
for coating the bipolar plates, in the composition of stainless steel or as anode
in the composition of anode (together with Ti) in SOFC
for metallic bipolar plate and as anode composition of SOFC
Current supply bottlenecks along the value chain
Around 30 raw materials are needed for producing FCs and hydrogen storage technologies. Of these materials, 13 materials namely cobalt, magnesium, REEs, platinum, palladium, borates, silicon metal, rhodium, ruthenium, graphite, lithium, titanium and vanadium are deemed critical for the EU economy according to the 2020 CRM list. Materials and components along the supply chain are presented below.
The unique chemical and physical properties make PGMs excellent catalysts for the automotive industry. Today, platinum demand for FC applications is insignificant compared with other end-use applications. However, a FC vehicle needs 10 times more than the PGM loading of an average gasoline or diesel vehicle.
The high price of platinum is one of the major challenges faced by the FC producers; platinum represents about 50% of the cost of a FC stack. Hence, researchers are continuous-ly trying to reduce the need for platinum in FCs. The supply of raw materials required in FC technology is diversified with more than half of the materials coming from a variety of suppliers, each with a small supply share of less than 7%.
China, with more than 20% share, is the major supplier of raw materials, followed by South Africa and Russia. Platinum is produced mainly in South Africa (71% of global production), followed by Russia (16%) and Zimbabwe (6%). The other PGMs, namely palladium, rhodium and ruthenium are also supplied predominantly by three key suppliers: Russia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
With regard to the next step in the supply chain, 12 processed materials are identified as the most relevant processed materials for FC and hydrogen storage/production technologies, namely porous carbon, yttria stabilised zirconia, polymers (e.g. perfluorosulphonic acid - PFSA), carbon fibre composites (CFC), stainless steel, graphene, scrap and flake mica, boron nitride powder, nano materials & carbon nano tubes, carbon cloth/paper, polyamide ultramid and metal hydrides. For the electrodes, several types of carbon or carbon-based materials have been developed, including mesoporous carbon and carbon nanomaterials. Around 40% of processed materials and 25% of FC components are supplied by European companies.
Carbon fibre paper and carbon fabric (cloth) are commonly used as gas diffusion layers (GDLs) that are key components in various types of FC, including PEM, DM FC and PA FC stacks. Bipolar plates are multi-functional components within the PEM FC stack. The materials used for bi-polar plates include graphite and stainless steel.
However, stainless steel for bi-polar plates has to be coated to increase functionality and increase lifetime. Typical examples of coating materials with excellent properties are gold and other noble metals. Due to the high cost of noble metals, it is desired to find alternative coating materials.
The major producers of FCs are Asia (mainly Japan and South Korea) and North America (Canada and USA). The last step of the FC supply chain is the assembly of cell components into a stack and its integration in the final system. The stack design and cell assembly are very important parameters that can influence the performance of FCs and distribution of re- actants in the cell stack.
The cell assembly will also affect the contact behaviour of the bipolar plates with the membrane electrode assembly (MEA). Manufacturers must align precisely the repeating components (e.g. MEAs, bipolar plates and seals) and non-repeating components (e.g. end plates, tie rods, compression load system, and external manifolds) to maintain stack durability and performance.
The key players involved in the FC supply chain are displayed below. The country shares take into account also the materials used in hydrogen production (Step 1) and hydrogen storage (Steps 1, 2 and 3). The bottleneck assessment shows a potential very high supply risk for the assembled FCs. High risk of supply issues is estimated for the first step of the supply chain - raw materials. No supply issues are expected for the other two supply chain steps.
FCs and Hydrogen technologies: an overview of supply risks, bottlenecks and key players along the supplychain
2030/2050 perspectives of raw materials demand
FC are used in both the automotive sector and for energy storage, therefore the raw materials demand in both technologies is estimated. Among the CRMs embedded in FCs, the current analysis focuses only on the platinum content, aligned with the available literature and the above considerations, e.g. Månberger and Stenqvist (2018) and Sun et al. (2011). The forecasts of the fleets of FC vehicles for the three scenarios are presented below.
The scenarios for the fleet of vehicles are the ones described above, with FC vehicles taking a particularly significant share in the fleet for the HDS scenario. See Annex 1 – Methodological notes for a further explanation.
FC can also be deployed for stationary ESS. Figure 17 presents the 2030 and 2050 EU demand for platinum contained in FCEVs plus FC ESS, expressed in relative terms in respect to current EU supply. The estimated demand of platinum for both FCEVs and FCs in ESSs is presented below. From the invidual values provided in Annex 2 - Data tables, it is observed that the amount of platinum for FC ESS is much higher than the demand for FCEV. The data tables in Annex 2 provide the individual amounts in both applications.
EU fleet of fuel cell electric vehicles according to the three explored scenarios
EU annual material demand for platinum in FCs in 2030 and 2050
Key observations and recommendations
Although FC development and deployment has grown during the last 10 years, it is still uncertain when this will reach full mass commercialisation. FC manufacturers remain largely dependent on public funding in order to support deployment activities of large-scale stationary FCs, whether through technology push or market pull measures. The main barriers at this stage are the reliability (availability and lifetime) and cost of the FCs.
Several key opportunities for policy actions are identified:
Diversifying the materials supply:
As for Li-ion batteries, more than half of the raw materials for FCs are procured by numerous smaller supplier countries.
Improve manufacturing opportunities in the EU:
Steam reforming of natural gas is the currently preferred option for hydrogen production and can either take place on a very large scale at source, or even locally at the point of use by small reformers integrated with the FC.
Recycling and reuse, substitution:
Though recycling of FCs and hydrogen technologies can be regulated by legislation that addresses aspects such as design, material selection and end-of-life, the recycling of FCs is a new business for recyclers and a potential topic for research. Finding an alternative for platinum will avoid the immediate problem of price and availability.
Despite many efforts to substitute platinum with non-precious metal catalysts there has been little success in finding effective alternatives with similar level of activity. An alternative solution is to replace platinum with other precious metals such as palladium or ruthenium, but their abundance is also finite.
Promote R&D, develop skills and competences:
Promoting research in FC development is feasible and can offer attractive opportunities for the EU. To this end, the most important partner would be the FCH JU. Although the design of the next European research framework programme is still ongoing, it is expected that the concept of a private-public partnership will remain basically the same. The FCH JU is also developing training and educational tools to increase confidence and technical trust in the technologies and to develop a skilled European workforce capable of operating FC systems.
Foster international collaboration and standardisation activities:
FCs and hydrogen technologies profit from an international approach to the development of the required infrastructure, of a global market for great quantities of hydrogen and of global regulations enabling their safe adoption in all parts of the world. Pre-normative research results are also shared internationally in the framework of a global standardisation and regulatory effort.
The existence of performance, safety and permitting standards and technical regulations is considered one of the enablers for a successful development and deployment of new technologies. The development of industrial standards enabling component compatibility and inter-operability can contribute to reducing costs and increasing the availability of components.
AHEAD THROUGH STRATEGIES AND SUPPLY CHAIN SOLUTIONS OF THE NEXT FUTURE - SIMPLY NATURALLY BETTER THROUGH ACCESS
Raw materials are crucial to the economy. They form a strong industrial base in which a wide range of goods and applications of daily life as well as modern technologies are produced. Reliable and unhindered access to certain raw materials froms worldwide a upcoming challenge to be solved. Analytical thinking, goal-oriented approaches and the fascination of "out of the box thinking" enables me to channel challenges in the daily business into opportunities and to create benefits where nobody expects them. I'm fascinated by the impossible and always motivated to initiate and realize them through innovative and creative approaches.
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