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Towards circular fuel cells: overcoming 3 challenges


At Umicore, we believe fuel cell electric vehicles are part of the way forward for cleaner mobility. That is why we have been working hard on developing Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell catalysts, doing our part to lead the charge. Now, we want to do more: we also want to spread the word about their technology benefits in a series of 6 episodes on fuel cells.

In episode 6: Towards circular fuel cells – overcoming 3 challenges 

How Umicore closes the loop 

The raw materials in PEM fuel cell and electrolysis catalysts – platinum and iridium, specifically – are very valuable. Therefore, it is important to use these materials sparingly and to recover as much of these metals as possible when they reach end-of-life.

When Umicore takes in content with precious and other non-ferrous metals, we always sample it first. This way, we know exactly what materials they contain, and in what amounts. After sampling and assaying, we divide the waste according to the metals we wish to extract. These then go to our smelter, which separates precious metals from all other metals. We are the only company to apply this technology on such a large scale with such a variety of materials following strict environmental procedures and safely eliminating hazardous substances. 

A market in full development

As the fuel cell and electrolyzer industry is still in its early stages, the stream of end-of-life materials is limited and there is no separate stream treatment at the moment. However, we are keeping a close eye on developments in the sector: should the need arise, we can easily separate the fuel cell & electrolyzer waste flows from other waste streams.

One thing is for sure: the fuel cell market shows strong growth potential. This means it is subject to change, which makes it difficult to set up a steady circular approach. At Umicore, we are already processing end-of-life fuel cell catalysts and production scrap to recover the valuable metals such as platinum, but we are aware the process could – and should – be further optimized once the market takes a clear direction. After all, there are many ways to be circular: from residue treatment to disassembly and everything in between. Our goal is to be a pioneer in the recycling of fuel cell catalysts.

Challenges for fuel cell circularity

In the coming years, we’ll need to clear the following 3 hurdles:

Challenge 1: developing more efficient catalysts

Platinum Group Metals (PGM) are critical raw materials with high-supply risk due to their significant economic importance for key sectors and their very high import dependence. Therefore, reducing the required amount of PGMs offers many advantages. We intend to lead by example on this front. Leveraging the core competences of Umicore in advanced materials science and engineering, we develop new electrocatalysts whose morphology and composition optimize the use of PGMs, in line with the international roadmaps elaborated for PEM technology.

Challenge 2: recovering PGMs by recycling fuel cells and electrolyzers

As the markets for PEM fuel cells and electrolyzers develop, it will be important to set up the right collecting, dismantling and recycling procedures, technologies and legislative framework. Within the recycling steps, both dismantling and metallurgical treatment to recover the PGMs from fuel cells and hydrogen technologies will bring their own specific challenges and business opportunities. Thanks to Umicore’s competences and know-how in metallurgy, our company is well placed to be a key player in the field.

Challenge 3: coping with fluorine

Fluorine is an important composition of PEM fuel cells and electrolyzers, but exposure to the substance can be harmful. Therefore, policymakers are mandating the phase-out of fluorinated products across various technologies and drastic reduction of any exposure risks to fluorinated substances. Therefore, it is equally important to capture and further manage the fluorine in recycling processes. At Umicore, we are already in the process of investigating fluorine acceptance and treatment. 

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