Impala Platinum Plans to Run Refinery on Fuel Cells in Two Years

  • Springs refinery currently uses 22 megawatts of power
  • Miner wants to stimulate demand for platinum amid low prices

Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., the world’s second-biggest producer of the metal, plans to power its 22-megawatt refinery in South Africa using hydrogen and methane-powered fuel cells within the next two years.

Impala is seeking to highlight the effectiveness of fuel cells, which contain platinum, as it tries to stimulate demand for the precious metal. While the technology is not yet commercially viable, it should become cheaper in time as more companies adopt it, Chief Executive Officer Terence Goodlace told reporters Thursday.

The company showcased a hydrogen-powered forklift truck and refueling station at its refinery in Springs, east of Johannesburg. It aims to build upon the prototype and generate about 8 megawatts of electricity to power the refinery by the end of the year and a further 1.2 megawatts will follow in early 2017, Goodlace said. Impala already uses hydrogen to refine nickel.

Along with fellow platinum producers, Impala is attempting to widen demand for the precious metal beyond catalytic converters, which reduce harmful emissions from cars, and jewelry. Slowing industrial demand and increased recycling of the metal have pushed the price of platinum to less than half its peak in 2008.

“Catalytic converters have been instrumental in reducing harmful gases from combustion vehicles,” Goodlace said. “In the longer term, fuel-cell vehicles offer the potential to match these instruments.”

Platinum Usage

Fuel cells, which generate power from hydrogen with water and heat as waste products, currently use about 30,000 ounces of platinum a year, out of total usage of 8.5 million ounces, according to Paul Finney, Impala’s group executive for refining. That’s expected to grow to about 300,000 ounces within 10 years, he said.

Creating new uses for platinum is necessary to maintain the 450,000 jobs supported by mining the metal, Goodlace said. Southern Africa is home to 80 percent of the world’s platinum, he said.

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