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South Africa should go all out with platinum and manganese to be in best of two decarbonising worlds

10th June 2019 BY: Martin Creamer
Creamer Media Editor

JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – South Africa, which has a wonderful platinum group metals (PGMs) endowment and an abundance of high-quality manganese ore, should go all out to be in the best of two new carbon-reducing technology worlds.

On the one hand, it should do all it can to be in the world of hydrogen with the help of PGMs and, on the other hand, do all it can to promote manganese in its potential electrification roles.

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In both cases, it will be renewable energy that will ensure that both battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are fully decarbonised.

Manganese is setting out to make its mark in the BEV arena by displacing cobalt to a large extent in many of the cathode formulations, where the bulk of battery metals are used, while platinum already has a growing niche in the hydrogen economy, with FCEVs proving the best carbonless way of powering trucks, buses, trains, trams and ships.

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While China is subsidising hydrogen technology steadfastly, South African-linked companies like Anglo American and its major PGMs mining company Anglo American Platinum are in growing touch with Chinese progress when it comes to the hydrogen economy and its link to FCEVs.

South Africa’s manganese interests, meanwhile, may consider doing something similar in the race to secure place for manganese in the BEV world.

In China’s current five-year plan to stop vehicles from polluting its air, the subsidisation of BEVs is already turning down and subsidisation of FCEVs turning up.

Both BEV and FCEV technologies are inextricably linked to renewable energy, which has been helped down the cost curve by China’s forceful development of solar panels.

Renewable energy has become a cut-and-dry business case that is being pursued for good business reasons and what is so wonderful about it is that it also comes with purposeful climate change mitigation and significant job creation.

From South Africa’s point of view, the country has superior sunlight and prime wind corridors, as well as an endowment of PGMs and now also potentially manganese, to help make the world a cleaner place and one less exposed to impacts of climate change, which some are now demanding be referred to in stronger language, such as ‘climate crisis’.

Those with their ear to China hear that their intention is to invest to an even greater extent in the hydrogen economy, which gives more emphasis to FCEVs and should be accompanied by greater South African focus on the metals it can provide to improve economies of scale.

The current use of PGMs in vehicle exhaust systems to reduce the air pollution of cities was the result of intensive marketing of the product to original equipment manufacturers and as much intensity should be exercised by South Africa today to market its metals into the new world of electrification of a multiplicity of products.

More and more research is being carried out into where hydrogen can be used and where hydrogen goes; South Africa should do its utmost to see that platinum follows.

Hydrogen, which is clean, is generated in abundance by the sun, and is able to store excess electricity for placement on power grids at times when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.

China, which already produces 30% of the world’s hydrogen, is, according to reliable sources that visit the country regularly, absolutely adamant that the country will lead the race for hydrogen. The target is to use hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source and to reduce the country’s reliance on imported hydrocarbon fuel, which worsens air pollution at a time when the world is intent on decarbonising.

Shanghai Automotive International Company Motor Corporation of China (SAIC) already has hydrogen-powered Roewe 950  FCEVs on the market. SAIC is the joint venture partner of General Motors and Volkswagen, the two market leaders in China.

Commentary on FCEVs has also started escalating in the rest of the world in the last year, particularly in Europe, the UK and on the west coast of the US.

In the last six months, in Europe and the UK, reports on FCEVs have started to reach the pitch that has characterised BEVs for a number of years now, which is giving added impetus to hydrogen being a significant green fuel alternative.

This is coinciding with the world in general becoming far more determined to bring a halt to the march of climate change, which is now a far bigger issue than originally postulated.

MANGANESE

Meanwhile, a race is on to see if manganese can make its mark in the cathode formulations of BEVs, where the bulk of battery metals are used.

Last week’s Junior Indaba, in Johannesburg, heard that manganese is in a race with nickel, cobalt and aluminium to win the favour of original equipment manufacturers concerned about cobalt’s high concentration in a single country, where ethical issues also cloud its use.

The favourable positioning of manganese surfaced during a panel discussion on strategic metals, led by Impala Platinum mining executive and Women in Mining chairperson Thabile Makgala, and made up of Standard Bank commodities analyst Thabang Thlaku, Manganese Metal Company chief marketing officer Madelein Todd, Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe executive director Paul Chimbodza and Ivanplats senior VP Gerick Mouton.

Todd outlined the new potential trajectory for manganese, which South Africa’s Manganese Metal Company sees as forming part of BEV cathode formulations.

Manganese was described as being poised for “a very rapid development". As the world’s largest producer of manganese, South Africa stands to benefit from the BEV growth if it succeeds in cracking the cathode formulation code.

The fact that EVs will only become fully green once they are charged from renewable energy sources means an even bigger potential horizon for manganese as the use of sun and wind energy would require the emergence of two types of battery ­– one in the car and the other out of it and used to store energy.

Thlaku told the Junior Indaba that Standard Bank was seeing an increase in the number of investor questions relating to BEV or FCEV commodities.

Mining Weekly Online reported last month that a new manganese-containing material may contribute to platinum-using hydrogen fuel cells being driven down the cost curve. The new material, made from manganese hydride, is being earmarked for use in molecular sieves that work with the fuel cells in hydrogen fuelled systems that generate electricity.

Science Daily quotes Professor David Antonelli, the physical chemistry chairperson at Lancaster University, as saying the use of manganese-based sieves may result in hydrogen fuel cell systems costing many times less than lithium-ion batteries used in EVs.

As countries tighten emission standards that define the acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold, FCEVs are coming into their own. CXLive reports that Chinese vehicle dealerships will no longer be allowed to sell vehicles that do not comply with the upcoming sixth emission standard in China, which is giving strong ongoing support to the development of hydrogen fuel projects.

Hydrogen filling stations are needed to support FCEVs, which is why hydrogen infrastructure is being rolled out in many countries.

Many more vehicle manufacturers are also studying FCEVs, which dovetail perfectly with the world’s adoption of renewable energy.  

EDITED BY: Creamer Media Reporter
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