No future for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles due to platinum shortage, says General Electric

Despite the impending launch of a handful of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from major automakers, many are still skeptical of the technology’s mass-market viability.

Among those skeptics is Vlatko Vlatkovic, chief engineer for the Power Conversion division of General Electric. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said expensive platinum will make fuel cells a niche product for the foreseeable future.

Many fuel cells use a proton-exchange design, which requires platinum or palladium as a catalyst. Vlatkovic argued that there isn’t a better design and that neither is there enough platinum for the technology to go mainstream.

“Very little goes in,” he said, ” but if you scale it up, there’s not enough platinum in the world.”

Platinum currently sells for about $1,400 an ounce, according to Bloomberg. The alternative catalyst palladium sells for around $760 an ounce.

However, Andy Marsh, CEO of Plug Power – a company that makes fuel cells for for forklifts used in warehouses and factories – claims platinum isn’t a constraint. He said very little of the material is needed in a fuel cell and that 90 percent can be recycled at the end of the cell’s useful life.

It isn’t immediately obvious who is right about the future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Even so, automotive fuel cells need to produce more electricity than forklifts and manufacturers need to make more of them for the technology to be a worthwhile investment. Carmakers may get around this by simply charging more for a fuel cell car than a comparable internal combustion, battery-electric, or hybrid model. Cost, clearly, is going to be a hurdle.

Toyota has said the cells in its upcoming production hydrogen car cost 95 percent less to make than those in the Highlander FCV prototype that debuted in 2002. That doesn’t mean much, however, given that the lowest price estimates for the 2015 model hover around $50,000, with more recent reports suggesting something in the region of $97,000.

Keep in mind that most modern electric cars cost more than their internal combustion counterparts, but the combination of a smaller price gap, the potential savings of switching to electricity, and a ready supply of early adopters haven’t killed them yet.

Carmakers can probably count on a few early adopters to scoop up their first fuel cell cars, but if they can’t bring prices down (or develop a refueling infrastructure), hydrogen may turn out to be a fad.