On the third day of the 2019 Mining Indaba, the conference death rattle began to sound. The crowd was thinner, the high heels were somewhat shorter, and most of the gents have disposed of their neckties altogether.

Not Robert Friedland though. The founder and executive co-chair of Ivanhoe Mines was all business as he delivered his key message: mining is not part of the world’s problems — it’s part of the solution.

“We are the miners and the world needs us now. If you going to reduce the consumption of petroleum, if you are going to burn less material that creates global warming gas, you’re going to need to come to us,” he says.

Like most everyone else at the mega-event taking place in Cape Town this week, Friedland was talking his book — but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Ivanhoe Mines has three projects on the go (one in SA and two in the Democratic Republic of Congo) which will produce commodities that are seen as vital components in clean air technologies. And other miners are also hitching their wagons to what they see as rising metal stars.

These metals, as the World Bank sees it, are mainly made up of aluminium, copper, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, silver, steel, and zinc.

But platinum group metals (PGMs) are also critical to healthier air, says Friedland. As luck would have it, his company is developing the Platreef platinum-palladium-gold-nickel-copper operations in Limpopo.

And thankfully for SA, the country has an abundance of the stuff.

As it is, demand for PGMs is driven by vehicle manufacturers, who use it in autocatalysts to reduce harmful emissions.

But now two new technologies — hydrogen fuel cells and battery-powered electric vehicles — are in a race to beat each other out as the preferred tech for the car of the future.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which are catalysed by platinum, combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor but produces no emissions. There are also operational fuel cells in trains, buses and trams in other countries, says Friedland. (And the key component for making these cells comes from Limpopo).

But, as Anglo American Platinum (Amplat) CEO Chris Griffith told the conference, the rise of battery-powered electric vehicles is a worry.

For the moment, hybrid vehicles account for the largest portion of the electric vehicle trade — and they still use PGMs in their gasoline engines.

“Even though the engines are smaller, they run colder, so they actually need higher loadings — so they don’t impact the demand for PGMs,” he said.

But ultimately electric vehicles, typically powered by lithium-ion batteries, have the potential to undermine demand for PGMs. “For that reason, we are doing quite a bit of work to see, why can you not use PGMs in batteries,” said Griffith.

Still, not everyone is a fan of hydrogen fuel cells. Elon Musk, the pioneer of electric car company Tesla, has described hydrogen fuel cells as mind-bogglingly stupid.

“He’s also called them fool cells,” Griffith says. “The fact is that one-billion or two-billion Chinese would disagree with him”.

It’s true that Chinese manufacturers have been investing heavily to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology and lobbying for its adoption.

Says Griffith: “the world is developing around fuel cells. We are not betting the farm on it, but we think it’s a good technology to solve real problems for the world”.

He, and a number of others who spoke at the Indaba including Friendland, will be hoping he’s right. The alternative is a much grimmer prospect for platinum, and for South Africa.