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New tech could open doors to next-level batteries – Platinum Group Metals CEO

SNL Image

Platinum Group Metals' Waterberg project on the Northern Limb of the Bushveld Complex in South Africa. The company is investing in a joint venture it hopes will encourage the use of platinum to make better batteries.
Source: Platinum Group Metals Ltd.

With the support of platinum group metals miner Anglo American Platinum Ltd. and growing research behind the technology, the "next stair-step up in battery performance" is around the corner, said R. Michael Jones, president, CEO and director of Platinum Group Metals Ltd.

Lion Battery Technologies Inc., a venture Platinum Group Metals launched with Anglo American Platinum in 2019, recently received a patent related to the use of platinum group metals, carbon nanotubes and other innovations to boost lithium battery performance. Under a US$3.0 million, three-year sponsored agreement with Florida International University, Lion Battery Technologies is funding research and patent agreements to unlock lithium-air and lithium-sulfur battery potential by using the catalytic properties of platinum and palladium.

The automotive industry uses palladium and platinum in catalytic converters and represents more than 80% of palladium demand and more than 30% of platinum demand, Platinum Group wrote in presentation materials. Some consumers are already shifting from conventional automobiles to electric vehicles, and finding a significant role for platinum group metals in batteries could be a "game-changer" for the commodity.

"This can apply to any lithium-ion battery. That goes for cars, laptops, all of it," Jones told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Anglo American Platinum and Platinum Group Metals launched Lion Battery Technologies in July 2019 and agreed to invest up to an aggregate $4.0 million in the venture. Under the agreement, Lion Battery Technologies will receive exclusive rights to the partnership's intellectual property and will lead the commercialization efforts of the technology.

Lion Battery Technologies said that while still in early research stages, its technology could improve upon lithium-air and lithium-sulfur chemistries that offer a power-to-weight advantage over traditional lithium batteries.

"With this innovation, there's good reason to be optimistic in terms of what batteries can do and take the stair step up to the next level," Jones said. "[Platinum group metals] are the key to opening that door."

Jones said he had been thinking about the role of platinum group metals as a catalyst in many chemical reactions and what that might mean for storing energy in batteries when he came across a research paper by Bilal El-Zahab. El-Zahab is an associate professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Florida International University specializing in nanomaterials for energy applications.

Jones, whose background is in mining engineering, said he did not fully understand the research material at first. He reached out to the El-Zahab for more information and soon entered into a partnership. El-Zahab said the team has already been awarded one patent for research done through the partnership, two patents are pending and a few more will be submitted soon.

"We have paid close attention to [lithium-air and lithium-sulfur technologies], but they have a few different problems. We believe that we found a unique solution to some of the problems that they have by using platinum group metals," El-Zahab said in an interview. "We don't anticipate anything to be a major roadblock that can prevent us from getting there."

Jones said one of the first questions people usually ask is whether platinum group metals will increase costs. He said that while the metals are not cheap, the price would be partly offset by greater efficiency and other factors. The market may also start to rebalance a bit in terms of demand as increased use of electric vehicles reduces the need for platinum group metals used in conventional cars, he said.

"We're asking these batteries to do extraordinary things, and we're willing to pay a lot for them. The classic question I always ask people is, 'Would you pay $100 more for a cell phone you only have to charge once a week instead of once a day?' Everybody says yes," Jones said. "We can actually afford quite a bit if we can make an extraordinary battery."

Platinum Group operates the Waterberg project, an underground palladium and platinum deposit in South Africa that is a joint development with Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. and other companies. In June, Impala Platinum dropped an option to increase its interest in the project to 50.01%.