Pulling Fuel Out of Thin Air … With Rhodium

We’ve covered Platinum and Palladium extensively in our previous posts, so it’s time we move on to another Platinum Group Metals (PGM) that is commonly found in spent catalytic converters and industrial catalysts – Rhodium. Although it is lesser known than Platinum and Palladium, Rhodium is more expensive per ounce at the moment due steady industrial demand and dwindling surplus. New industrial applications for the metal is set to further drive up demand. Here’s one such recent and potentially game-changing discovery. 

The idea of pulling things from the air is either considered as modern alchemy or a load of baloney depending on what you believe in. However, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in collaboration with Tufts University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have made a revolutionary breakthrough in converting methane into a usable fuel such as methanol

This new technique literally pulls useable fuel from the air using Rhodium catalysts. It is also much more cost-effective to implement on both industrial and smaller scale applications than the prevalent multi-step approach that uses expensive-to-generate high temperatures.  

So what does this mean for the PGM recycling industry?

First of all, Rhodium – a PGM commonly recovered from spent catalytic converters – is used as catalysts in the direct transformation of methane into methanol. The catalysts, prepared using rather simple procedures, enabled this conversion under ‘mild conditions’. This means that the new method is comparatively more energy and cost-efficient, not to mention environmentally friendlier than the prevalent technique. 

Now, if the new technique is to be adopted on an industrial scale, the demand for Rhodium (as the main and indispensable catalyst component) is set to rise, along with its prices. This is good news for recyclers and mining companies alike!

But it all hinges on the economic viability of Methanol 

The mid- to long-term economic viability of methanol is critical. Currently, methanol is used to produce chemicals for the manufacturing of everyday products like plywood, plastics and paints. 

It is also an alternative fuel for internal combustion and other engines, either in combination with gasoline or directly. It is already used in racing cars in many countries. Although methanol fuel is not as popular an alternative to other petroleum-based fuels like ethanol in the US, this may well change due to the large quantities of methane detected in its natural gas recently. The new cheaper and more efficient method of transforming this abundant chemical into methanol fuel will likely gain momentum.   

Methanol can also be reformed to produce high-grade hydrogen for fuel cells. If fuel-cell vehicles can take off against the odds, chances are more rhodium will be needed as catalyst in the conversion process. 

Now, should we all hold our breath?

Well, to sum it all up for our fellow recyclers, this potentially game-changing process of converting methane to methanol using Rhodium catalysts could well be the silver lining to an otherwise gloomy outlook for PGMs given that the  demand and usage of methanol is likely to take off. 

In these challenging times, a little practical magic like pulling fuel from the air goes a long way in lifting our spirits. 

Are you a PGM recycler? What do you think of this new development, and what are your concerns for the future? Do share your thoughts with us at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100017344330145. We’d love to hear from you.