The opinions expressed in this report are those of WPIC and are considered market commentary. They are not intended to act as investment recommendations. Full disclaimers are available at the end of this report.

Executive Summary

Despite the transition to electric vehicles already underway, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs) will remain a significant part of the global automotive drive train mix well into the 2030s. However, the decline in platinum use associated with fewer ICE vehicles being produced will be more than offset by higher platinum loadings and increased platinum-for-palladium substitution in the near- and medium- term. Demand for platinum in hydrogen fuel cells for fuel cell electric vehicles will offset the eventual long-term decline in automotive demand for platinum from catalytic converters.

Supportive hydrogen policies could result in FCEV demand for platinum equalling current automotive demand by 2039, with broad-based commercial adoption of FCEVs bringing this forward to 2033, adding over three million ounces to annual automotive platinum demand in eleven years.

Introduction

When considering mobility solutions, balancing the acute need to decarbonise the world with the economic reality that the early adoption of new technologies is expensive calls for a multi-pronged approach that incorporates a number of different low carbon technologies. These include not only battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), but also more efficient internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs), particularly mild-hybrid gasoline and mild-hybrid diesel powertrains; diesel versions still emit 20% less CO2 than gasoline ones.

ICEs are expected to remain a significant portion of the global drive train mix well into the 2030s; from a platinum demand perspective, likely volume declines will be fully offset by tighter emissions standards and correspondingly higher platinum loadings, plus platinum substitution for palladium.

However, demand for platinum in hydrogen-fuelled FCEVs is likely to offset the eventual decline in automotive demand for platinum for catalytic converters. To date, broad-based FCEV adoption has been slow to materialize due to both limited vehicle and green hydrogen production volumes restricting economies of scale and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure deployment.

These challenges are now being overcome, with an increasing number of FCEVs available today in all vehicle categories, supportive government policies enacted in many parts of the world and increasing economies of scale in both hydrogen and FCEV production. FCEVs are likely to achieve cost-competitiveness with BEVs over the next decade and there is growing recognition that FCEVs are complementary to, rather than competitive with, BEVs.

Furthermore, the current Russian-driven geopolitical crisis and the need to reduce European reliance on Russian gas supplies (currently c.40% of European demand) has prompted the European Commission to propose a policy that displaces a significant proportion of Russian gas supplies with green hydrogen. This, in combination with high natural gas prices, should further accelerate green hydrogen production and infrastructure in Europe, bringing ancillary benefits for the deployment of FCEVs, particularly in heavy-duty vehicles in the near term.

Recent research by the WPIC highlights that supportive hydrogen policies could result in FCEV demand for platinum equaling current automotive demand by 2039, with broad-based commercial adoption of FCEVs bringing this forward to 2033, adding over 3 million ounces to annual automotive platinum demand in eleven years.

Figure 1: Global adoption of FCEVs is expected to accelerate dramatically under both policy-based and commercially-enhanced scenarios

What is a PEM fuel cell?

The first fuel cell was invented in 1838 and further developed during the Gemini space programme of the 1960s into platinum-based proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. PEM fuel cells are now a mature technology where hydrogen and oxygen are combined to generate electricity, with heat and water as the only by-products.

A PEM, sometimes also referred to as a polymer electrolyte membrane, is a semi-permeable ionomer membrane through which protons (H+) can pass, while also acting as an electrical insulator and a reactant barrier; i.e., non-conductive of electrons and impermeable to oxygen and hydrogen. A PEM fuel cell consists of a membrane electrode assembly (MEA), where each membrane is sandwiched between a cathode and an anode, both dosed with platinum, with the membrane acting as a solid electrolyte. Hydrogen gas is channeled to the anode where the platinum catalyst facilitates the reaction causing each hydrogen atom to separate into an electron and a proton. The electrons flow to the cathode as an electrical current providing power to, and the protons flow across the membrane to combine with oxygen from air channels into the cathode, and the current of electrons to produce pure water, which is then released from the permeable catalyst surface and exits the fuel cell.

From a kinematic perspective, the electrochemical process at the anode is rapid and requires low platinum loadings, but the process that occurs at the cathode is more sluggish, requires greater platinum loadings, and has typically offered greater opportunities for reducing platinum content (thrifting) and for the use of other materials (substitution).

Platinum is especially suited as a fuel cell catalyst as it enables the hydrogen and oxygen reactions to take place at an optimal rate, while being stable enough to withstand the complex chemical environment within a fuel cell as well as the high electrical current density, thereby performing efficiently over the long term.

Fuel cells share many of the characteristics of a battery – silent operation, no moving parts, and an electrochemical reaction to generate power. However, unlike a battery, PEM fuel cells need no recharging and will run indefinitely when supplied with hydrogen. A FCEV also has a battery, albeit a relatively small one, to store excess energy from the fuel cell as well as power recovered from braking.

A single fuel cell alone only produces a few watts of power; therefore, several fuel cells can be stacked together to create a fuel cell stack. When combined in stacks, the fuel cells’ output can vary greatly, from just a few kilowatts of power to multi-megawatt installations.

Fuel cell stacks that do not use platinum-based PEM technology need to be much bigger to achieve similar power outputs. This makes platinum essential to the efficiency of mobile end-use applications and, in particular, its use ensures that the fuel cells are compact and light enough for use in FCEVs.

FCEVs

Hydrogen fuel cells can power a range of applications, providing energy to homes, mobile homes, and boats, and back-up power to businesses. Platinum-based hydrogen fuel cells are especially suited to providing fossil-fuel free electric mobility in FCEVs and are already being used to move goods across the supply chain – from hydrogen powered trucks to fork-lift trucks moving goods around a warehouse. When fueled by green hydrogen, FCEVs offer a ‘well to wheel’ emissions-free transport.

A FCEV has similarities to both BEVs and mild-hybrid electric vehicles (MHEV). Like a BEV, the motive power is provided by one or more electric motors, but with the energy source being a fuel cell, rather than a large heavy battery pack. In fact, FCEVs typically share ~80% of the components and systems found in a BEV. Like a MHEV, a FCEV also has a supplementary but relatively small battery to store energy from regenerative braking, also making it available to the motor during heavy acceleration, although the prime motive power is from the electric motor rather than ICE. Importantly, FCEVs are ‘off-grid’ in that they do not need to be plugged in to be charged, a significant advantage in inner city locations where consumers may not have access to off-street parking and home charging points.

FCEVs combine the emissions-free driving of BEVs with the quick refuelling times and range of a traditional gasoline or diesel car. Unlike BEVs, they also have the advantage of providing ‘high load capacity’, meaning that FCEVs maintain a consistent power output even as the load increases, for example when going uphill or towing.

FCEV versus BEV

The range/refuelling advantages of FCEVs puts them on a par with ICE vehicles in terms of day-to-day usability with no range anxiety and only three to four minutes to refuel. BEV manufacturers would argue that rapid charging can impart a usable range within 15-20 minutes. While this is undoubtedly true, rapid charging pushes lithium-ion batteries out of their optimal electrochemical operating window, resulting in accelerated degradation of the expensive-to-replace battery pack. Slower charging of the battery maximises its life but takes two to four hours with high-capacity chargers, and 8-10 hours or longer on home ‘trickle’ charging, to deliver a comparable range. The range/battery life question is also exacerbated by ambient temperature considerations in seasonal or cold climates. Lower temperatures significantly increase internal resistance in batteries, which reduces range and operating life. PEM fuel cells, on the other hand, provide consistent performance down to -30°C, which is similar to ICEs.

One advantage BEVs have over FCEVs when both are using renewable power for, in the case of the former, charging, or, with the latter, the hydrogen source, is that BEVs are typically ~62% efficient from a well-to-wheel perspective, whereas FCEVs are ~40% efficient (figures from ANL GREET model [FCEV] and U.S. EPA [BEV]). However, this equation changes quickly when capacity utilisation rates and the cost of capital are considered. In an environment calling for high-capacity utilisation rates, such as city buses, long-distance truck driving, plant or farm equipment, or warehouse forklifts, FCEV capacity utilization might be >90% whereas it could be <50% for a BEV being operated on a battery sensitive charge cycle; a huge difference when applying a cost of capital overlay.

Furthermore, while charging BEVs is unlikely to overly tax the primary electrical power grid now, it will require significant grid upgrades at certain adoption thresholds. This is particularly true for heavy duty (HD) vehicles operating from depot environments where charging multiple vehicles overnight or on an opportunity basis can require significant grid upgrades, especially as the fleet grows larger. On the other hand, the per vehicle cost of installing hydrogen refuelling infrastructure falls at larger fleet sizes as the quicker refuelling times mean that it can service a greater number of vehicles, as illustrated in the following schematic for bus operators.

Figure 2: Per vehicle refuelling costs for FCEV fall with increasing fleet size, whereas the additional grid upgrade costs for BEVs continue to grow with the fleet

Overview of current FCEV market

The early adoption of FCEVs has been led by bus and forklift truck operators. The depot-based nature of bus fleet operations makes them ideally suited for FCEVs as the operator can have dedicated hydrogen refuelling stations. Similarly, forklift trucks are working in a captive warehouse environment and benefit greatly from consistent performance rather than batteries where it declines towards the end of a shift.

The leading producers of FCEV for the light vehicle (LV) consumer market are currently Hyundai (NEXO) and Toyota (Mirai), which have both offered FCEVs for a number of years. Automakers that expect to launch LV FCEVs in the near future include: BMW (iX5, 2022); Honda (relaunching the Clarity, 2023); Hyundai (Staria, 2023); Kia/Hyundai (FK); Land Rover (Defender); and Ineos Grenadier, amongst others.

The benefits of FCEVs over alternative low carbon drive train options are probably at their strongest in the HD category due to the capacity utilization considerations, the load capacity losses sacrificed to the weight of the battery and, for the largest vehicles, the practical considerations of road and tyre wear and even the maximum weight allowances for infrastructure such as bridges. Indeed, this segment has the greatest number of manufacturers involved, but it is less developed than the LV segment with most of the offerings somewhere between development and advanced trials. In no particular order, companies involved in the development of HD fuel cell trucks include Hyzon, Cummins, Ballard, Volvo and Daimler, Bosch, Hyundai, MAN, Toyota, and Nikola.

Forecasting the pace of FCEV penetration is not straightforward, and while there is substantial and growing support for the hydrogen economy, matching up near-term ambition with real-world action is difficult. Furthermore, while the light commercial vehicle (LCV) and HD segments are best suited to the advantages offered by fuel cells, the light vehicle segment is the most developed with regard to currently available vehicles.

There is good visibility on LV FCEV production numbers to date, as well as planned fuel cell production capacity plans for some of the major players, although whether those fuel cells are destined for on-road, off-road, or static purposes is not always clear.

Hyundai, for example, currently has fuel cell manufacturing capacity of 23,000 units per annum and is planning to commission two further 50,000-unit factories by the end of 2023, taking its total capacity to 123,000 units per annum, which it is aiming to increase to 700,000 by 2030 (500,000 for FCEVs). Assuming that all are using the power and estimated loadings of the fuel cell used in the Nexo, 123,000 fuel cells a year equates to platinum demand of 175 koz p.a, while 700,000 units equates to a million ounces, although in all likelihood the loadings per kW will be thrifted between now and 2030.

It is worth noting that production volumes are the key driver to achieving economies of scale and bringing down the system cost of FCEVs towards parity with ICE. This is illustrated in the following chart produced by the U.S. DOE, which shows that costs almost halve going from producing 1,000 to 100,000 fuel cells per year.

Figure 3: Increasing economies of scale are key to bringing down fuel cell system costs

Outlook for FCEV market

Research by WPIC has considered two scenarios when modeling forecast FCEV production. Firstly, a policy-driven scenario, where FCEV adoption is driven by government and regional subsidies, incentives, and legislated targets. Secondly, a commercially-enhanced adoption scenario, where government and regional policies have engendered infrastructure critical mass and FCEV and hydrogen production economies of scale sufficient to promote widespread adoption on the grounds of cost competitiveness and practicable usability. 

Infrastructure development and supportive policies key to FCEV adoption

The biggest early adoption challenges facing FCEVs relate to infrastructure and policy. In a rather ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, hydrogen refueling stations (HRS) are needed to make FCEVs a viable consumer option, but the automakers are reluctant to invest too heavily in FCEV development until the HRS networks are in place, and governments are reluctant to support HRS rollout until they know that FCEVs are available for consumers. However, national policies are being enacted around the world to support the development of hydrogen production and hydrogen refuelling networks which are overcoming these challenges.

As a result of policy, things are moving, with accelerated development of HRS networks and a number of countries and regions announcing hydrogen and FCEV strategies and targets. While targets help drive implementation and indicate progress, these can be based on a diverse range of criteria from electrolysis capacity and HRS network scale to FCEV sales, with care required when making comparisons between countries and regions. Countries and regions to highlight include China, targeting 1,000 HRS by 2030, South Korea, which is targeting 80,000 FCEVs on the road and 310 HRS by 2022, and Germany, which is planning 400 HRS by 2023. Longer term, South Korea is targeting the production of 6.2m FCEVs p.a. by 2040 of which 3.2m will be for export. Vehicle emissions policies that already target fleet CO2 levels, long standing in North America and new to Europe in 2021, already provide automakers with an incentive for FCEVs to reduce fleet emissions.

Figure 4: Select green hydrogen and FCEV policies and funding

Forecast FCEV production scenarios by segment

LV segment: In its policy-driven scenario, the WPIC anticipates that LV FCEV production will be led by China, followed by South Korea, with more than 50% of its output planned for export, then Europe. Annual production could exceed 200,000 units in 2024 and 2 million units in 2030. The WPIC has taken a view that the greater current commercial availability of LV FCEVs means that adoption in this sector could run ahead of LCVs and HDs. Thus, while there is upside baked into the commercially-enhanced adoption scenario, it is relatively muted.

Figure 5: Policy-based LV FCEV production by region dominated by RoW (South Korea), Europe and China

Figure 6: Commercially-enhanced LV production assumes greater output from Europe and North America

LCV segment: LCV production numbers in the policy-driven scenario are expected to be led by China and South Korea with a little more upside built into all of the regions under the commercially-enhanced scenario. Given that the fuel cell powertrains are likely to be highly interchangeable between LCV and LV models there could be substantial variability in the outlook for LCV if relative demand causes automakers to prioritise one or the other.

This last point could be true even for HD if the fuel cells are designed to be used as multiple units; for example, Toyota has been trialling Hino trucks with two Toyota Mirai fuel cells providing the motive power.

Figure 7: Policy-based LCV FCEV production is dominated by China, with other regions broadly balanced (excluding North America)

Figure 8: China still dominates in the commercially-enhanced LCV production scenario, but increased output assumed for other regions

HD segment: China dominates in the policy-driven scenario, with a particular focus on buses, which can be supported by dedicated refueling facilities. Furthermore, China has the most ambitious HRS plans, and although a large country, an extensive refueling network is supportive of HD transportation and distribution networks along specific transport corridors. Other regions have potential, with significant early production coming through in the commercially-enhanced scenario, noticeably in North America.

Figure 9: Policy-based HD FCEV production is dominated by China, followed by Europe and Japan

Figure 10: China still dominates in the commercially-enhanced HD scenario but output from RoW kicks up considerably as does production in North America

FCEV penetration rates

Penetration growth rates are very similar under both scenarios, with CAGRs of a little over 50% between now and 2030, albeit off a very low base, before falling below 20% thereafter. FCEV market penetration remains relatively low at only 2% for LV and LCV in 2030, rising to 8% later in the decade, and 3% rising to 11% under the commercially-enhanced adoption scenario. While these growth rates appear high, they are broadly similar to those seen in the pace of BEV uptake over the past 10 years.

Looking at the FCEV segments in more detail, while smaller in numbers, the penetration rates are much higher for HD vehicles, reaching 8% by 2030 and heading past 15% later in the decade under the policy driven scenario, but reaching almost 40% by 2040 under the commercially-enhanced scenario. We have assumed that individual markets are likely to have FCEV saturation points relative to other drivetrain technologies, which creates a stepped production profile depending upon the starting dates of significant FCEV vehicle adoption and HRS roll-out in different regions.

Figure 11: HD FCEV market penetration reaches around 15% under the policy-driven scenario…

Figure 12: …but reaches almost 40% under the commercially-enhanced scenario, in contrast to more muted upside in LV and LCV FCEVs

Power and platinum loadings

After vehicle production numbers, fuel cell power output and platinum loadings are the most important factors in determining FCEV demand for platinum. In general, platinum loadings are greater for HD over LV and LCV, due to higher capacity utilization needs resulting in increased exposure to and therefore potential for catalytic poisoning by impurities in the fuel and from other sources. The WPIC estimates that current loadings are typically around 0.53g/kW for HD vehicles, and between 0.18g/kW and 0.13g/kW for LCV and LV.

As with catalytic converters there are ongoing efforts to reduce the platinum loadings of PEM fuel cells, with the DOE having a target of 0.10g/kW by 2030, which appears achievable. Our estimates assume that average LV loadings decline to 0.10g/kW by 2030 and further reduce to 0.08g/kW later in the decade. Similarly, HD loadings are expected to decline to 0.25g/kW over the same time period.

Trade-off with battery capacity

A FCEV incorporates an auxiliary battery as well as the fuel cell. This means that the power supplied by the fuel cell is often significantly below the power of a comparable ICE vehicle today as the electric motor can draw on the fuel cell and the battery during peak load, with the fuel cell powering the motor and recharging the battery when load requirements are lower.

There is therefore a trade-off between the size of the fuel cell and the size of the battery. At one end of the spectrum, constant load applications, the fuel cell will be sized to provide almost all of the power requirements of the electric motor and the ancillary battery will be relatively small. At the other end, the vehicle could almost be considered a BEV with a smaller fuel cell acting as a range extender. Examples of the latter include buses in China with 30kW fuel cells and a large battery pack in contrast to the typical 70-100kW fuel cell and 30-45 kWh battery of a single decker bus in Europe. To provide some context to these numbers, a typical single decker diesel bus in Europe would rate at 220-260kW with the difference reflecting the instant torque of electric motors.

These distinctions will be somewhat regional in nature, and generally accentuate existing differences in internal combustion engine capacities in different parts of the world (e.g. smaller engine capacities in China than in comparable vehicles in the US). The WPIC is also forecasting fuel cell sizes to increase in some geographies, with initially smaller fuel cells and larger batteries gradually being switched to larger fuel cells and smaller batteries. In some geographies like Europe, this reflects the current packages offered by automakers. For example, Stellantis are using Symbio fuel cells in their light commercial vehicle, which are currently offered at 45kW, but with Symbio planning larger fuel cells in the near future when there is scope to gain carrying capacity by changing the balance of the system. With relatively few HRS currently available, there is also an initial advantage in being able to charge the vehicle and use the fuel cell as a range extender by stopping to fuel up opportunistically when passing HRS, but as availability of HRS improves this equation begins to switch.

Forecast FCEV demand for platinum

Figure 13: FCEV demand for platinum

Pulling together the FCEV production estimates, fuel cell power outputs and platinum loadings results in the following platinum demand forecasts. Under both scenarios, FCEV demand is initially very modest with the first real step-up in demand coming with the commissioning of larger fuel cell production facilities in South Korea in 2024. Over time, however, the demand begins to become more meaningful, in the policy-driven scenario reaching 1 Moz p.a. by 2030, continuing to grow to almost 4 Moz p.a. by 2040. The initial trajectory is similar in the commercially enhanced adoption scenario, before accelerating to 1.3 Moz p.a. by 2028, moving on to almost 6.7 Moz p.a. by 2040.

For comparative purposes, automotive demand for platinum in 2022f is expected to total 3,129 koz (for catalytic converters). Exceeding this level of annual demand from FCEVs is achieved in 2039 under the policy-led scenario. Despite many commentators predicting the end of the internal combustion engine, we are of the view that this is impractical on grid and economic grounds and that continuingly stringent emissions regulations should allow for internal combustion engines to continue to be an important part of the drivetrain mix for a long time to come. Nonetheless, even the policy-based scenario shows that FCEV demand for platinum could exceed the level of current demand from internal combustion engine vehicles and add to the future demand from the remaining ICE fleet.

In the commercially-enhanced demand scenario, FCEV demand for platinum reaches the same annual level as 2022f automotive demand by 2032. This is a significant increase in the demand for platinum, which will require a significant increase in mined supply with demand growth most likely exceeding supply growth over the ten-year period.

The significant demand growth from FCEVs over the next two decades is being recognised by more investors considering platinum as an investment asset. However, as these investors look at the hydrogen-related impact on demand, it is the currently constrained supply and short-term demand growth potential from automotive platinum demand that is more likely to drive their investment now in what is increasingly seen as a strategically critical ‘green’ metal.

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