Critical raw materials in the hydrogen sector

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Although the implementation of global renewable electricity generation capacity is increasing exponentially, with the goal of tripling it by 2030 as established by COP28, the world’s renewable hydrogen production capacity is lagging behind. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently lowered its five-year forecast for renewable power capacity dedicated to renewable hydrogen production (2023–2028) to 45 GW. It goes without saying that the hydrogen sector will require a substantial amount of critical raw materials (CRMs), for instance, for fuel cells, electrolysers, hydrogen separation, hydrogen storage, and hydrogen transport.
By Bruno G. Pollet, Director of the Hydrogen Research Institute at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

Renewable energy and renewable hydrogen

Hydrogen represents a potential source of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, and many countries are investing accordingly in this fast-growing market. Hydrogen currently accounts for about 2% of the global energy market,1 with approximately 50 million tonnes being used annually.2 While electrification remains the primary strategy for reducing GHGs, green or renewable hydrogen (RH2) plays a complementary role in the sectors of the economy that are difficult to electrify. Both these approaches are critical for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.3,4,5

Today’s global hydrogen production is estimated at ca. 94 million metric tons per annum (MTA), and it may reach 110 MTA and 240 MTA by 2030 and 2050, respectively. About 50% of this is consumed by industry, with the remainder used in transport and energy sectors. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA),5 hydrogen supply needs to expand more than five-fold by 2050, exceeding 500 MTA, to serve a broader range of uses to decarbonize carbon-intensive sectors, the so-called ‘no regret sectors’. There is a very clear trend of increased adoption of RH2 in industrial processes. According to a recent report by the Hydrogen Council and McKinsey & Company, over 1,400 hydrogen projects worth USD 570 billion in investment were announced as of October 2023, with a quarter of projects with known commissioning date having progressed past the final investment decision (FID), representing 7% of the total announced investments, with 45 MTA of clean hydrogen announced by 2030.6 To achieve net-zero, an estimated 200 million metric tons of clean hydrogen is required by 2030.

According to the IEA, 45 GW of new renewable energy capacity for RH2 will be built by the end of 2028, representing only 7% of what developers have announced. However, it is worth noting that 510 GW of renewable power capacity was added globally in 2023, a 50% increase from 2022. Under current policies and market trends, global renewable energy capacity is expected to be 2.5–3 times higher by 2030, aligning closely with the COP28 UAE target of tripling.7 Here, the main objective is to rapidly transform the ambitions of world governments into concrete measures so that the 1.5°C pathway can be met.

Hydrogen production

Hydrogen can be produced through various methods, including steam methane reforming (SMR), water electrolysis, biomass gasification, and more. Each method requires complex equipment and materials. For instance, SMR requires reformers, heat exchangers, and catalysts, while water electrolysis relies on water electrolysers (devices that convert water into molecular hydrogen and oxygen gases), which include membranes, electrodes, bipolar plates, and other sub-components.8

For producing RH2 using renewable electricity, water electrolysers are essential. There are five main types of electrolysers, either available on the market (high technology readiness level, TRL) or under development (low to mid-TRL). These are classified as low-temperature (LT) and high-temperature (HT) water electrolysers (WE).1 In LT-WE, alkaline water electrolysers (AWE) and proton exchange membrane water electrolysers (PEMWE) dominate the market, whereas emerging technologies such as anion exchange membrane water electrolysers (AEMWE) are being developed and even commercialised (e.g., by Enapter, Cipher Neutron, to name but a few). Currently, there are more AWE systems in operation at large scale globally than PEMWE systems (e.g., proven Stuart technology platform). Furthermore, there are alkaline technologies to closely watch, such as Hydrogen Optimized’s RuggedCell™ patented high-power water electrolysers that deliver low-cost clean hydrogen at scale. For HT-WE, solid oxide electrolyser cells (SOEC) and proton conducting ceramic electrolyser cells (PCCEL) are being developed and even commercialised. SOEC is expected to play a significant role by 2050.

According to IRENA,5 the total installed electrolyser capacity is expected to reach 5,000 GW by 2050, while the IEA predicts a capacity of 3,670 GW.4,9 This represents a significant increase from the installed capacities of around 0.6–1 GW in 2022 and around 2 GW in 2023. Under the IEA’s Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, electrolyser capacity needs to grow 6,000-fold by 2050.10 Some other reports estimate electrolyser installations to grow to over 240 GW over the next six years.11

Hydrogen transport and delivery

The use of hydrogen spans various applications, including combustion engines, fuel cells, and chemical processes. Each operating system requires specialized equipment and materials. An efficient, reliable, and cost-effective transport infrastructure is vital for the delivery of hydrogen from production sites to end-users. Key components of this infrastructure include pipelines, compressors, pressure relief stations, valves, fittings, and safety mechanisms. These components often use high-strength steel or advanced composite materials due to their mechanical properties, corrosion resistance, and lifetimes. Hydrogen supply requires robust and low-cost storage technologies. Various storage methods, including compressed gas, liquid hydrogen, liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC), liquid ammonia (NH3), methanol (CH3OH) and solid-state storage (e.g., metal hydrides), require unique equipment and materials.8

Current bottlenecks

Currently, there are several main barriers to hydrogen adoption, including: (i) production, transportation, and distribution costs, along with infrastructure development; (ii) the need for policy and regulatory framework development and harmonization between regions; (iii) a lack of market structure and off-takers, leading to demand uncertainty); (iv) insufficient financial support in the early stage of deployment; (v) access to natural resources; and (vi) environmental and safety issues.8

Critical and strategic raw materials

The successful establishment of a hydrogen-based economy relies strongly on a thorough understanding of the equipment and materials used across the hydrogen value chain, including production, storage, transport, and use systems. The hydrogen sector requires CRMs, such as those used in fuel cells, electrolysers, hydrogen separation, hydrogen storage, and hydrogen transport.8

The equation is simple: no CRM = no renewables and no hydrogen revolution!

To be clear, the term ‘critical’ does not mean the physical or chemical properties of a material or mineral, nor the size of its reserves; it simply indicates its availability and economic significance. Commonly, the criticality of a mineral is determined by the following parameters: future availability, the ability to increase production and supply at a sufficient rate, inflation and cost increases, and geopolitical and strategic situations.

In the hydrogen sector, critical raw materials include platinum (Pt), iridium (Ir), and ruthenium (Ru) – known as platinum group metals (PGMs) – as well as rare earth elements (REEs) like neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy). Additionally, nickel (Ni), cobalt (Co), zirconium (Zr) and manganese (Mn) are essential for certain types of hydrogen production and storage technologies. These materials are crucial in advancing hydrogen technologies but are subject to supply chain challenges and geopolitical considerations.8

PEMWE chiefly contains Ir, Pt, and Ti. Currently, Ir is very expensive (a circa 800% increase since 2000) and scarce. Ir is a minor mining by-product for PGM, predominantly mined in South Africa and Zimbabwe (iridium typically accounts for up to 4% of the overall PGM grade in the ore), and its supply is not expected to increase above the current level of around 7–9 tonnes per annum. Thus, efforts to reduce significantly and recycle these CRM demands will be necessary as PEMWE deployment increases. PEM fuel cells (PEMFC), used in passenger hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen trains, for example, rely on a combination of electrodes (Membrane Electrode Assemblies or MEAs containing platinum), membranes, and balance of plant components.8,9

In the case of AWE, it is the oldest, most mature, most robust, and commercially available technology, also has mineral requirements, including Ni and Zr. According to IRENA 2020, AWEs are the most cost-effective, with stack components and balance of plant accounting for 45% and 55% of the cost breakdown, respectively.5

AEMWEs do not rely on expensive and scarce CRMs, but instead use Ni, Co, iron (Fe), and stainless steel and operate in less corrosive and pure environments, meaning simpler balance of plant and fewer water purification systems. They are simpler cell designs. Currently, their efficiencies and durability are not comparable to PEMWE and AWE, but they are rapidly closing the gap. AEMWE is an electrolyser technology to watch closely.

Perhaps not mentioned a lot, but SOECs are another technology to watch, as it offers higher efficiencies (e.g., 30% higher than LT-WEs) without needing scarce CRMs. Cost reductions for SOECs by 2030 are expected to be around 90%, compared to 50% for AWE and 70% for PEMWE.

Overall, the development and optimization of electrolyser technologies that minimize CRM requirements will be critical for the growth of the hydrogen sector, along with reducing environmental impacts – such as GHG emissions and water footprint – from sourcing CRMs needed for clean hydrogen production and utilization.

End-of-life recycling

Implementing recycling at the product’s end of life (EoL) and establishing a closed-loop economy are potential solutions to address the scarcity of critical and strategic raw materials. However, in the short and medium term, this approach may be less effective due to the long lifespan of products containing these materials and the need to maintain an inventory of existing products. Thus, the energy transition will require the use of new primary materials, which will necessitate an increase in mining activities. In the long term, however, recycled materials are expected to lessen the dependence on primary supply. Minerals like Ni and Co could reduce the primary supply by about 10% by around 2040. While this may not seem like much, it could significantly contribute to meeting the rapidly growing material demand.8

What is the future for hydrogen?

The deployment of carbon-free hydrogen is to be considered by the end of the decade. However, this requires overcoming several bottlenecks, and it is crucial to keep our feet on the ground. The reality is that RH2 is still expensive, and thus its deployment should be focused on areas where it offers the greatest potential for decarbonization, such as heavy transport and heavy industry. RH2 should not be ‘wasted’!

Moreover, the most cost-effective and climate-friendly pathways for hydrogen production would depend on the natural resources of each location. The carbon intensity of each production chain could be assessed and considered separately, with tools like guarantees of origin negotiated in secondary environmental markets.

Final thoughts

Currently, the greatest risk on the horizon is the geographic concentration of minerals required for the clean energy transition, especially in the refining/transformation (e.g., China). As it stands, China is the largest producer of most of the critical raw materials, e.g., REEs. If the electrolyser industry scales up according to the IEA and IRENA estimates, there will be a supply vs. demand mismatch that will be impossible to satisfy. This sector may face shortages and price spikes due to competition with other clean technology sectors such as electric motors, batteries, photovoltaics, wind turbines, etc. To mitigate this, it is essential to:

    1. Decrease material loadings, especially Ir, Pt and Ti in PEMWE; Zr and Ni in AWE; and Sc (as well as La and Y) in SOEC.
    2. Improve the recyclability and reuse of materials.
    3. Develop and commercialize electrolysers based on less critical materials, other types of technologies, etc.

It is also important to remember that the hydrogen industry is only a small part of the broader ‘green energy transition’. Other clean energy technologies like solar, wind, and batteries are also expected to see exponential growth in deployment and will demand their share of CRMs such as Ni, Cu, and REE, thus limiting the remaining share available for electrolyser deployment. To add to this, price spikes are expected due to competition and supply-demand imbalances.

Understanding these materials is not only crucial for grasping their current applications but also for forecasting future needs and challenges, particularly as we aim for expanded electrolyser capacity by 2050. Evaluating the supply and demand dynamics of these critical and strategic raw materials, providing a comprehensive view of both the present and future, is vital. This approach helps uncover potential supply risks and better understand strategies and potential bottlenecks for materials in hydrogen technologies, addressing both current and future demands as well as supply.

A thorough understanding of equipment, materials, components, and sub-components across the entire hydrogen value chain is a must to advance the implementation of hydrogen technologies.

References

About the author

Prof. Dr. Bruno G. Pollet is Director of the Hydrogen Research Institute at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR) in Canada. He holds two Research Chairs – the NSERC CRC and Innergex – in green and renewable hydrogen production, with a strong focus on the next generation of electrolysers and low-carbon hydrogen-generation technologies.

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About this Featured Article

This article was selected and posted by the HTW Editorial Team. It was originally pubished in the Hydrogen Tech World magazine – an open-access, bimonthly digital publication dedicated to technologies associated with hydrogen production via water electrolysis, hydrogen transport, storage and distribution, and hydrogen application in fuel cells.

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Matjaž Matošec
Matjaž Matošec
Matjaž is a seasoned writer and communicator eager to effectively disseminate knowledge and always on the lookout for exciting stories and people willing to share their insights and first-hand experience. He is curious about all things industrial and passionate about the energy transition. He is editor-in-chief of the Hydrogen Tech World magazine, manager of the Hydrogen Tech World Conference, and research manager at Resolute Research.

All images were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, or in compliance with social distancing.