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Platinum, palladium's uncertain future as auto industry changes

Staff writer ▼ | May 18, 2016
In 2015, autocatalyst demand accounted for over 40% of total platinum and nearly 75% of palladium consumption. Used to reduce vehicle carbon emissions, autocatalysts are present in nearly all new vehicles.
Analysis   At the mercy of politicians
"The vehicle industry, and therefore PGM demand, is at the mercy of politicians and short-term environmental policy," said Jenny Watts of consultancy SFA Oxford. Yet Watts estimates up to a third of current platinum and palladium demand is under threat from uncertainty in the auto industry.

An emissions scandal that looks unlikely to end soon, and a change in focus from just carbon emissions to more harmful nitrogen oxides, could change the way platinum group metals are used, according to Watts.

"In the rich world you are more likely to die from air pollution than a traffic accident," said Johann Wiebe, from Gold Fields Mineral Service. "This means huge challenges ahead for an industry reliant on vehicle sales," he added.

Diesel cars in particular, which account for over half the European market and prefer platinum usage over palladium, are under growing pressure as they emit much higher levels of nitrogen oxide emissions than petrol engines.

"Air quality is a real problem - but PGM autocatalysts are part of the solution," Watts said.

With Asian demand for cars expected to double in the next 10 years as incomes rise, there will be many more vehicles on the roads in the years ahead.

"The internal combustion still dominates -- this means PGMs," said Watts.

Yet electric cars may prove the biggest challenge in the years ahead.

"In the short term, diesel, gasoline and hybrid vehicles will remain the bulk of the share - but longer term, electric cars are expected to be 35% of the vehicle market by 2040," Wiebe said.

At the moment, share is just 1%, but if countries like India and China put their weight behind electric cars it could increase much more rapidly, according to Wiebe.

But for now, autocatalysts in combustion engines still dominate.