- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

There are more problems than infrastructure slowing the advancement of fuel cells as a means of powering vehicles.

The high cost of platinum and the amount needed of the precious metal for mass-market volumes is another main barrier to the development of market-viable fuel cell cars, according to a senior engineer at Nissan Motor Corp.

Masashi Arita, general manager of Nissan’s powertrain and environment research lab, has said: “The most critical technical issue is how to reduce the cost of the stack itself.” The “stack” refers to the multilevel design of fuel cells that hold, separate and eventually mix the gases to create the hydrogen that is needed to power the electric motors.

Mr. Arita said between 80 and 100 grams of platinum are needed for a fuel cell’s power output to be in the range of 70 to 75 kilowatts, or about 100 horsepower, which is roughly the standard for fuel-cell cars. For comparison, he points out that the amount of platinum used in a catalytic converter is less than 10 grams per car.

Mr. Arita said a fuel cell capable of powering a car today costs more than $200,000.

If power output could be maintained at the 70- to 75-watt level while slashing platinum usage by 75 percent, to about 20 grams, then: “We could begin introducing some fuel cell vehicles into the market.”

A number of companies including Honda, Toyota and General Motors say fuel-cell vehicles will be introduced to the mass market within the next six to 10 years. However, they do not expect them to be built or sold in large numbers. Niche would probably overstate the volume expected.

“To achieve a realistic cost level in the future, the amount of platinum used should be reduced to one-tenth the present level at a minimum,” Mr. Arita said.

Recently the closing price of platinum was nearly $600 an ounce — 100 grams (equal to a 3.53 ounces) of platinum would cost in excess of $2,000.

Mass production usually would change that equation dramatically. The cost of other components typically drops when volumes rise because of economies of scale. That’s not true for a rare metal such as platinum.

Mr. Arita predicted that in mass production the cost of platinum would dramatically increase. “From the standpoints of cost and resource conservation, it is not possible to use that amount of platinum in mass-production vehicles.”

Indeed, the price of platinum reached its highest point in nearly 17 years, showing the market’s response to President Bush’s call for more research into fuel-cell technology. Spot platinum was trading at $668.50 an ounce earlier this week, continuing a rally that has taken the white metal from below $450 an ounce last year. New York platinum traders expect the metal to trade in the range of $700 to $800 an ounce within 90 days.

A fuel cell consists of four key elements. As hydrogen and oxygen move through the fuel cell’s layers, including an electrostatic layer, they recombine to form water, or more accurately, water vapor. A slight electrical charge is produced as well. Platinum is required for each square centimeter of the layers.

The goal of fuel cells in vehicles is to produce enough of a charge to power the vehicle while emitting only water vapor into the air.

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