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lunar drilling illustration
EIf hydrogen-based fuel cells are slow to develop, alcohol-based alternatives may still stimulate the search for platinum resources on the Moon. (credit: NASA)

Lunar platinum and alcohol fuel cells

If platinum group metals (PGM) can be extracted from asteroid fragments found on the lunar surface, the potential exists to craft a viable scenario in which space exploration provides a tangible and quantifiable economic benefit to the Earth, all in the near term. Numerous uncertainties plainly exist, but if the Wingo Hypothesis—that asteroid impacts have deposited recoverable PGM on or near the lunar surface—is true (an open question that is eminently testable), that resource may provide the best near-term scenario for harvesting extraterrestrial resources to benefit the Earth’s economy in ways unrelated to space exploration.

Unlike helium-3 mining, a present day market for platinum already exists with prices hovering near $1000 per ounce. In the more distant future, helium-3 (He3) may well become an invaluable lunar resource if uranium for fission becomes too expensive or is deemed environmentally unacceptable. However, until practical fusion power is developed, the market for He3 will remain small, providing little or no present day demand for importing He3 from the Moon. While the export to LEO of liquid oxygen (LOX) or water extracted from polar ice deposits also offers real economic opportunity far sooner than PGM mining, the economic value of lunar LOX or water is entirely self-referential in that such resources have essentially no value except in the context of reducing the cost of space commerce. That said, extracting and using lunar LOX or water will reduce the costs of conducting PGM mining operations, and selling those resources to NASA or Bigelow Aerospace (for example) would provide a supplemental income stream for future PGM miners.

A drawback of methanol-based fuel cells is the need for additional platinum catalyst. This disadvantage points directly towards enhanced viability of lunar platinum mining.

One argument against the economic viability of lunar PGM mining addresses the most discussed use for lunar platinum, that being the mass fabrication of hydrogen fuel cells, purportedly to replace the internal combustion engine in terrestrial automobiles. This is a valid objection since our species does not currently possess a hydrogen production and distribution capability capable of providing the hydrogen fuel that would be needed to operate large numbers of hydrogen fuel cell cars. On this exact point, Jeff Foust’s review of Dennis Wingo’s book Moonrush (see “Review: Moonrush”, The Space Review, August 16, 2004) observed as follows:

While PGMs are indeed a critical component of fuel cells, another critical component not freely available on Earth is hydrogen. Many fuel cells in use today get their hydrogen from the very same fossil fuels they are designed to replace, either directly or indirectly. If the “hydrogen economy” really is to flourish, a new way to generate hydrogen will be required.

Dr. Foust makes an excellent point. Hydrogen fuel cell cars have been heavily hyped in recent years, perhaps beyond what is realistic. Hydrogen delivery infrastructure is currently non-existent and pure hydrogen is not easily stored, transported or delivered to the much-hoped-for fuel cell automobile. Also, since extracting elemental hydrogen from larger molecules requires more energy than is recovered upon combustion, the economic benefits of an energy policy which relies upon hydrogen appears to strongly overstated, at least prior to deployment of significant power generation capacity based upon fission, fusion, or so-called “renewable energy”—solar, wind, tidal, and so on. But does this mean there cannot be a huge new market for lunar platinum, in the immediate future? This question requires a deeper investigation into various fuel cell technologies.

Current prototype hydrogen fuel cell automobiles run on what are known as Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFCs) and as stated in the linked article “are believed to be the best type of fuel cell… to eventually replace the gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines.” However, a PEMFC requires pure hydrogen to operate and the presence of contaminants can seriously degrade performance. In any event, without a massive hydrogen production and distribution system, hydrogen cars remain a possibility confined to the more distant future. However, alcohol-powered fuel cells (methanol and ethanol) are another possibility. For example, the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) is “still in the early stages of development, but [has] been successfully demonstrated powering mobile phones and laptop computers—potential target end uses in future years. DMFC is similar to the PEMFC in that the electrolyte is a polymer and the charge carrier is the hydrogen ion (proton). However, the liquid methanol (CH3OH) is oxidized in the presence of water at the anode generating CO2, hydrogen ions and the electrons that travel through the external circuit as the electric output of the fuel cell.”

Methanol is a liquid that stores easily but is poisonous if consumed. According to the linked article, one drawback of the DMFC is “that the low-temperature oxidation of methanol to hydrogen ions and carbon dioxide requires a more active catalyst, which typically means a larger quantity of expensive platinum catalyst is required than in conventional PEMFCs.” This disadvantage points directly towards enhanced viability of lunar platinum mining. Future developments also point to the availability of ethanol, as well as methanol, as a fuel source, however additional research and development will be needed before ethanol fuel cells become viable.

Direct methanol fuel cells are commercially available today. A German company, Smart Fuel Cells, currently sells DMFCs for recreational vehicle and offshore yachting use and this review offers detailed information on a commercially available DMFC used to supply house power for upscale motor homes in Europe. In addition, Toshiba has been quote active in the development of small methanol fuel cells to power laptops, camcorders, MP3 players, mobile phones, and countless other handheld electronic devices. It is reported that “latest prototype, with its total weight only 8.5g, is small enough for integration into a wireless headset for mobile phones, but still efficient enough to power an MP3 music player for as long as 20 hours on a single 2cc charge of highly concentrated methanol. The new fuel cell outputs 100 milliwatts of power, and can continue to do so, non-stop, for as long as users top up its integrated fuel tank—a process that is as simple as it is safe.”

Even if such devices only use a miniscule quantity of platinum, the potential plainly exists to sell hundreds of millions, if not billions of such devices each year. Such production will require several million ounces of PGM per year, new demand that will add substantial upwards pressure to current market price of platinum.

Other uses include interest by the US military in DFMC backpacks to offer power to soldiers who must venture far from the electric grids or traditional military vehicles. As described in this report, lugging heavy batteries into the field creates a “logistics burden for dismounted soldiers on missions longer than 24 hours [that] has become quite arduous. As such, the growing need for lightweight, rugged, and environmentally benign soldier power systems has been targeted as an excellent entry market for portable fuel cell systems. The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development, and Engineering Center (CERDEC) Fuel Cell Technology Team located at Fort Belvoir, VA has been developing soldier power sources to meet such a need. In March 2005, one of the most advanced, fully integrated direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) systems developed to date was received by CERDEC and a test and evaluation program was initiated.”

Even if such devices only use a miniscule quantity of platinum, the potential plainly exists to sell hundreds of millions, if not billions of such devices each year (if we aggregate cell phones, camcorders, MP3 players, and laptops together with military uses, RVs, and so on). For example, PolyFuel is a company that produces membranes for DFMC products. At the July 2005 Nano-Tech Forum on Fuel Cells, PolyFuel presented a detailed report concerning both the expected future growth of demand for methanol fuel cells and the technical benefits of this new technology and they predict the large-scale consumer introduction of this technology in June 2007, at least in Asia. Even if we limit DMFC applications to the high tech consumer markets, the DMFC industry could rapidly come to produce over one hundred million new DMFC power units per year and if each new unit requires merely 1 gram of platinum, such production will nonetheless require several million ounces of PGM per year, new demand that will add substantial upwards pressure to current market price of platinum.

In addition to this acknowledged source of demand for methanol fuel cells, the author now proposes a new use that could create demand that dwarfs the markets described previously, specifically the deployment of alcohol-powered fuel cells as an interim step in providing electricity to rural India and China. Anil K. Rajvanshi, Director of the Nimbkar Agricultural Institute in Maharashtra, India has recently written that “it is a matter of shame for all of us that even 56 years after independence, 63% of all rural households in India do not have electricity and use kerosene for lighting.” Running power grid electricity into every rural hamlet in India, China, and elsewhere in Asia, as well as South America and Africa, will cost trillions of dollars and require decades to accomplish, yet that task is essential for the economic development of billions of human beings.

As an interim solution, the deployment of alcohol-powered fuel cells would allow off-grid villages access to cell phones, video and audio equipment, computers, and ordinary electric light. Alcohol fuel cells running LED lights would improve standards of living and diminish the pollution and inefficiency that comes from using kerosene lamps for ordinary household lighting. A rural Indian village that “goes Wi-Fi”, powered by alcohol-based fuel cells, might thus leapfrog the 20th century and pass from the 19th or even 18th century directly into the 21st century. If the alcohol used to power these fuel cells is derived from agricultural sources, such development is also independent of the increasingly problematic global petroleum economy.

This potential use offers a staggeringly large potential market for the manufacture, sale, and deployment of fuel cells similar to that being sold today by Smart Fuel Cell for use in upscale motor homes and offshore sailing yachts. In theory, hundreds of millions of such units could be sold and deployed across India, rural China, and elsewhere in the Third World. And since the RV-sized version will be too small for many rural villages, larger fuel cell devices will require even greater quantities of platinum catalyst. While at current price levels the Smart Fuel Cell product line is too expensive for the rural Indian market, the development of a lunar platinum supply to supplement terrestrial supply could be combined with the application of global human development funding sources to subsidize the local manufacture and deployment of countless alcohol-based fuel cells across the Third World.

It appears obvious that developing a lunar supply of PGM would be profoundly beneficial for the global terrestrial economy and can help provide a persuasive “why” for initiating a robust lunar presence as soon as possible.

This potential use also creates political allies as space advocates seek sustained governmental funding for space exploration, both inside the United States and around the world. This potential use also establishes a basis for India and the United States to form a strategic partnership for the development and exploitation of lunar platinum. Our assistance with the economic development of the rural poor in India could assist the United States in forging even stronger ties with a vital future ally.

A review of terrestrial platinum resources

Is our global platinum supply adequate to fulfill any or all potential future demand? Platinum Today appears as an authoritative online resource for relevant data on the global PGM market and this page summarizes several decades of supply and consumption figures for platinum, palladium and rhodium. 6.7 million ounces of platinum were consumed in 2005, compared with 6.6 million ounces produced, the shortfall in production covered by reserves.

Key points to consider:

  • 46% of the current annual demand for platinum is for auto-catalysts and this will only increase as the Chinese auto industry establishes and conforms with catalytic converter requirements for new cars produced or sold in China. Retro-fitting China’s existing fleet will consume even more PGM.
  • Figures for 2005 consumption reflect only negligible consumption for commercial fuel cell use, either for the hydrogen fuel cell automotive application or the alcohol fuel cell discussed in this paper.
  • Between December 2005 and January 2006, platinum prices have increased by over ten percent from approximately $960 per ounce to approximately $1060 per ounce. Speculative investment and currency fluctuations do play a role in this price move, yet the fundamentals described above point to strong support for a sustained or increased commodity price for platinum group metals.

Simply put, the author sees little or no excess production capacity to supply PGM for the marvelous uses discussed in the first part of this paper. While finding engineering techniques for the more thrifty use of PGM is plainly called for (and is in fact occurring) it also appears obvious that developing a lunar supply of PGM would be profoundly beneficial for the global terrestrial economy and can help provide a persuasive “why” for initiating a robust lunar presence as soon as possible.

Another potentially persuasive “why” involves choke points for strategic metals. Eighty percent of global platinum comes from South Africa and a substantial portion of the remainder comes from mines in Russia that have already passed their peak levels of productivity. A parallel issue involves growing concern that China may be seeking to corner the market on certain “rare earth” elements that are vital for the 21st century economy:

Even as China has come to depend on huge commodity imports to sustain its booming economy, it is cornering the market for an obscure group of minerals that are vital to high-technology industry.
China now supplies about 95 percent of the world's consumption of "rare earths," according to international mineral industry experts. Rare earths are a class of minerals with properties that make them essential for applications including miniaturized electronics, computer disk drives, display screens, missile guidance, pollution control catalysts and advanced materials. In 1994, China's share of the market was 46 percent, according to industry statistics.
The rare-earths market, estimated to be worth up to $1 billion a year, is dwarfed by the global trade in bulk commodities like iron ore, but controlling the supply of these minerals gives China a strategic advantage as it seeks to build powerful high-technology industries and modernize its armed forces.
Lunar platinum mining presents yet another “chicken and egg” conundrum that so often confronts space advocates. A potential market of $8 billion to $10 billion per year appears plainly insufficient to justify the substantial expense associated with deploying a genuine lunar mining facility.

The procedures and techniques required to mine lunar platinum could also be applied to prospect and extract these other rare earth materials that are of vital strategic importance to our technological economy. Although the $1 billion annual value of the rare earth market and the $7 billion to $8 billion annual market for platinum might appear sufficient to justify lunar mining, the existence of choke points and the strategic nature of resources such as platinum could warrant governmental support for opening up alternative sources of supply even if a purely commercial operation is not viable. If Western governments decline to offer such support, perhaps the Chinese government will, insofar as China lacks any indigenous PGM resources and currently imports 50% of the world’s global platinum production. Given the strategic value of platinum and rare earths, governmental subsidies of lunar mining should be considered by many of the world’s governments as being a strategic investment in their own national interest.

Summary

Lunar platinum mining presents yet another “chicken and egg” conundrum that so often confronts space advocates. A potential market of $8 billion to $10 billion per year appears plainly insufficient to justify the substantial expense associated with deploying a genuine lunar mining facility. On the other hand, platinum group metals and other scarce rare earths elements provide an essential linchpin for our 21st century technological society and these resources may very well exist in lunar asteroid fragments. Dennis Wingo has suggested that lunar PGM mining can be commercially viable even with a decline in the commodity price of platinum to a level as low as $300 per ounce. If indeed the discovery of abundant sources of lunar platinum drove down PGM commodity prices well below $1000 per ounce, perhaps below $500 per ounce, then we could all wring more energy from a given quantity of fuel, with less pollution, and thereby enhancing the quality of life for every person on this planet.

PGM mining can be one piece of the puzzle for building a genuine cislunar economy. Revenue from PGM mining can be combined with revenue from the export to LEO of lunar LOX (or water if available) for sale to NASA and other agencies and combined with revenue from lunar tourism that uses mining camp habitats as double duty hotels. All of these uses can share a common transportation infrastructure that receives additional funding from government- and university-funded scientific endeavors, together with direct governmental subsidy. The author asserts there is no one “killer application” that will open the heavens to humanity. Rather, we will likely need to cobble together a multitude of revenue streams and if the Wingo Hypothesis is proven correct, harvesting lunar PGM will be a significant component of that cobbled together revenue stream.


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