The exhaust from internal combustion engines using hydrocarbon fuels is cleaned by catalytic converters using the properties of platinum, palladium, and rhodium. China is now the largest producer of motor vehicles of any one country; it has almost certainly already surpassed the United States for that title permanently. In 2009, China produced 13.5 million motor vehicles; it is predicted that this production rate will reach 18 million per annum by 2015; and 21 million per annum in 2020.
The misconception by the political and financial classes in the West, that the era of the internal combustion engine is coming to a close, is causing a lack of interest by them in the need for increased production of platinum and rhodium, the platinum group metals critically needed to manage the exhaust emissions of internal combustion engines.
There will be no sudden conversion of the world’s growing fleet of motor vehicles – now standing at 750 million – to electrified propulsion. Even the most sanguine estimates put the total percentage of electrified vehicles produced per year at no more than 10% during the next decade and no more than 20% by 2030.
This means that of the minimum 2 billion motor vehicles produced over the next 20 years, only 400 million of them, at most, will be electrified with little or no exhaust to manage.
What of the 1.6 billion built with internal combustion engines?
The world’s 2009 production of platinum and rhodium was almost entirely from southern Africa; the global total comprised 200 metric tonnes of platinum and 30 metric tonnes of rhodium, which was produced ONLY as a byproduct of new platinum production.
The production of the platinum group metals in Africa has doubled in the last 10 years and has barely kept up with automotive demand. If it were not for intensive recycling there would now already not be sufficient platinum and rhodium for automotive use.
China is taking the long view and investing wisely in platinum group metals production in southern Africa, because there is no way that platinum group metals production can be increased enough to supply even a doubling of the world’s standing fleet of motor vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.
The increasing cost of owning and operating a motor vehicle everywhere will surely mandate a much longer service life for such vehicles. This will tie up supplies of the platinum group metals for longer periods and thus squeeze the supply of them from recycling.
There will come a time in the next decade therefore when first rhodium and then platinum go into short supply with a concomitant rise in prices; in fact this is already starting.
I have purposely left palladium out of this discussion, because I am speaking of southern Africa, and it is Russia and Canada that produce the world’s palladium.