Sunday, October 24, 2010

Peak Oil, Alternative Energy and Platinum Group Metals

The world's attention is increasingly turning towards alternative energy as the reality of Peak Oil is sinking in, even though the public discussion of Peak Oil is still only just wispering, with majority of investors unware of the looming global crisis.

Fossil fuels are cheap and convenient: they are easily produced, and the fuels themselves serve two purposes at the same time: They are both energy source, and energy storage. When you fill up your car with 15 gallons of gasoline, you acquires both the energy needed to drive your car a few hundred miles, as well as ways to store the energy: the energy is stored in the gasoline until it is burned in the internal combustion engine.

Any alternative energy development must address these two issues as well: energy source, and energy storage. Alternative energy sources we talk about, like solar, wind, ocean wave, nuclear, addresses only the problem of energy source, but not the energy storage.

While scientists are making some progress in developing high energy density batteries, the basic physics is that energy density in any battery could never come even close to the chemical energy density in either hydrogen, or carbohydrate fuels. The best energy storage solution we can find is to synthesize carbohydrate fuels using energy derived from solar, wind, nuclear or coal fired power plants. Such synthesized carbohydrate fuel can then be transported using the existing infrastructure before they can be utilized. Finally, fuel cell batteries can extract energy from the carbohydrates and turn it into electricity energy, at an efficiency much higher than simply burning them in a combustion engine.

So this is the alternative energy recipe scientists have given us:

  1. First electricity is generated from alternative energy sources like solar, wind, ocean wave, nuclear, hydropower, etc.

  2. Second electricity is used to synthesize carbohydrate fuels, allowing the stored energy to be easily transported and utilized.

  3. Third fuel cells are used to generate electricity from carbohydrate fuels to provide end energy usage, like driving a vehicle or other electricity driven machines.

Do you realize that for steps 2 and 3 to be possible, a category of rare and expensive precious metals are need. You need the so called PGMs (Platinum Group Metals), namely platinum and palladium. These two metals serve as catalysts in synthesizing cabohydrate fuels. They also serve as catalysts in fuel cell batteries.

Among the two PGM metals, palladium is probably even more important. Palladium is very unique in its extreme affinity to hydrogen: one volume of palladium is capable of absorbing 900 times the volume of hydrogen. Such extreme affinity to hydrogen makes palladium an ideal catalyst in any chemical process that involves hydrogen, including, of course, the chemical process to synthesize carbohydrate fuels, or the chemical process to turn carbohydrate fuel into water, carbon dioxide and electricity, as it happens in fuel cells. There is no shortage of efforts by scientists to look for alternatives to the expensive platinum and palladium, in the last one hundred years. Unfortunately no practical substitute could be found so far.

No wonder when President Bush advocated hydrogen economy in a State of the Union address in 2003, some one reminded us that you can NOT have a hydrogen economy without palladium, and that the USA is lucky to have one of the world's only two primary palladium mines: the Stillwater Mine (SWC) in Montana. The other palladium mine is North American Palladium (PAL). Read "The Russians Are Coming" by Mother Jones.

Recently there is an investor mania in the sector of rare earth metals, just like the one in solar energy a few years ago, due to recent news that China is limiting production and export of rare earth metals. The rare earth metals mania is not without a good reason. The alternative energy development is a huge investment theme due to Peak Oil. In the alternative energy development, you need efficient electric motors to turn mechanical energy (like wind power or hydropower) into electricity and turn electricity into mechanical power (like in a hybrid car), and you need high energy density batteries to store the electricity energy. The high density batteries need rare earth metals. To make the strong magnets needed to build electric motors, you need rare earth metals. Not to mention the advanced electronics technology need rare earth metal as well. No wonder the whole world panicked when China begin to cut back rare earth metals expert quotas, and there is an investor mania to rush into potential rare earth mining plays like MCP, REE, AVARF.PK and UURAF.PK these days.

But let me be clear: rare earth metals are not rare at all. China could not cut the world off on rare earth metals even if she wants to. There are plenty of rare earth resources else where in the world that can be developed. They just won't be cheap.

But here are these two other metals that are truely rare, and that all alternative energy technology more critically depend on, and which China has zero domestic sources. China runs the danger of being cut off by the world on these two critical metals if there is a resource war.

Those two metals, as I just mentioned, are palladium and platinum. Supply of these two metals concentrate in just a few spots in the world: Russia's Norilsk Nickel (NILSY.PK) mine, South Africa PGM mines, and these two palladium mines in North America: SWC and PAL. Price of platinum but even more so that of palladium, have been surging up relentlessly due to strong supply/demand fundamentals. China, Japan and other nations without their domestic sources of these two metals, better begin to think about accumulate their strategic reserved of these two critical strategic industry and war time metals.

Likewise, investors would do much better hoarding physical palladium metal bullions, than hoarding a basket of 2 dozen different rare earth metals and not knowing which one will do best in the near future.

In the next two articles I will talking about how effects of resource peaking in two countries will impact global supply of platinum and palladium catastrophically, causing market panick in the near future, sending prices of these two metals surging to unimaginable high levels:

Peak Coal in South African and the Global PGM Supply

-How South Africa is running out of coal. How booming India coal demand will deplete South Africa's coal supply. And how these will impact South Africa's electricity supply and therefore constraint that country's platinum and palladium supply.

Peak Nickel in Russia and the Russian Checkmate on Palladium

-The Russian checkmate on global palladium supply are in two aspects: First the end of Russia strategic palladium stockpile sale, due to the stockpile depletion. Second, palladium production of Russia's Norilk Nickel (NILSY.PK) mine declines dramatically, as ore grade deteriorates. Third, More shockingly, Norilsk Nickel is now considering the more cost effective Activox Process technology, which it acquired by spending US$6.5B to acquire LionOres a few years ago. The Activox Process will dramatically cut sulphur dioxide pollution. But the new technology will only extract base metals nickel and copper, leaving platinum and palladium in the residue un-extracted, unless the price is high enough to provide the economic incentives to extract the precious metals using alternative approaches. This change would be a catastrophic loss of global palladium supply and will be sure to cause market panic.

Full Disclosure: The author has large long positions in palladium mining stocks SWC and PAL, in addition to silver mining stocks like SSRI, CDE, HL, and coal mining stocks PCX and ACI. The author has no position in rare earth metal plays REE and MCP.


ahnn said...

It really shows that platinum has more to offer than just being use as a jewelry. A very informative post that's worth reading.

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