INTERVIEW-Platinum's days as fuel cell car component may be numbered

LONDON, March 23 (Reuters) - The volume of platinum used in fuel cell-powered cars could be cut to "micro levels" within three years and eradicated altogether in a decade's time, making these environmentally-friendly vehicles much cheaper to buy.

Bart Biebuyck, executive director of the European Commission's fuel cell and hydrogen joint undertaking, said the amount of platinum in the next generation of fuel cell cars had already been cut to levels similar to that used in the catalytic converters of diesel vehicles, which industry estimates put at 3-7 grams.

"Between the first and the second generations, there has already been a 70 percent reduction in platinum," Biebuyck said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

Fuel cell cars, which generate electricity through a reaction using hydrogen and platinum, make up just a small fraction of an electric vehicle market dominated by battery power. But this could change given plans to build refuelling networks for fuel cell cars in United States, Germany, Japan and China.

Eradicating platinum, a precious metal nearly 56,000 times as expensive as steel, is driven by the car industry's desire to cut costs.

The world's best-selling fuel cell model, the Toyota Mirai, retails at 66,000 pounds in the United Kingdom before subsidies are applied, more than double the price of the best-selling electric car, the Nissan Leaf.

Biebuyck says recent cuts to platinum "loadings" would make fuel cell vehicles cheaper. "Once the cost is equal to a normal diesel or gasoline car, there is no need to select the CO2-emitting option," he said. "We need to get to that price."

"Recently we have heard more voices suggesting we keep micro levels of platinum, that are so minor that they will almost have no cost impact," he said. "In the next two to three years, we will reach micro levels."

Using only a thin film of platinum in fuel cells could allow them to retain the technical advantages of using the metal while cutting costs to negligible levels, he said.

Research is now underway to find materials to replace the metal altogether, Biebuyck added, though that may not be necessary from a cost perspective if loadings are small enough.

"There are in the laboratory some materials that can do the same as platinum," he said. "We need to do a lot of research on that." Removing platinum altogether "will take another 10 years", he said.

The automotive sector is a major consumer of platinum, accounting for more than 40 percent of annual demand for the metal. It is chiefly used in catalytic converters to clean exhaust fumes, with the heaviest loadings in diesel catalysts.

The move away from diesel engines in the wake of the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 has raised concerns in the wider market over the demand outlook for the metal.

With consumers moving towards electric-powered cars, fuel cells, which use platinum as a catalyst, have been seen by some as a potentially significant source of demand growth. But cost-conscious carmakers' focus on cutting the amount of platinum used could mean this growth does not materialise.

Fuel cell vehicle take-up has lagged that of battery-powered cars, with only 35 registered in Britain last year, compared to more than 13,500 battery electric models. Their spread has been curbed in part by the lack of refuelling infrastructure.

Fuel cell cars can be refuelled quickly and typically have a longer range than batteries, Biebuyck said, meaning they fit more easily into consumers' existing pattern of car usage. He estimates that use will take off significantly from 2025.

"You will see after 2025 the (refuelling) stations will be in place and we will have more models and bigger volumes, and as you have volumes then of course the costs go down," Biebuyck said.

(Reporting by Jan Harvey. Editing by Jane Merriman)