The hunt for precious metals is on

August 28, 2014 | 00:00

The hunt for precious metals is on

Whilst the European energy sector depends for many products and processes on precious and rare metals, their supply is unstable or insufficient. Although global competition for these metals is increasing, new recycling facilities in Europe are coming on stream.

Rare earth oxides
Attribution: Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture
Precious metals are indispensable in the energy sector - as platinum is used in industrial catalysts to convert oil into gasoline, silver in solar panels, rhodium in automotive catalysts and iridium in fuel cells.

However, mining companies can't produce enough to keep up with industrial demand due to depleting ores, labour unrest and power outages. For example, a shortage for palladium of over 1 million ounces is anticipated in 2014, according to analysts from BMO Capital Markets and Citigroup.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission has published various reports about critical metals for the energy sector and pointed out several metals with medium to high risks of shortages. Apart from certain precious metals, the JRC also included rare earth metals such as neodymium and dysprosium to this list, as well as rare metals such as indium, tellurium and gallium.

Dysprosium was identified as being the most at risk, as the European Union is expected to require a fourth of the expected world supply in 2020-2030 to meet its demand for hybrid or electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Apart from substitution by less critical materials and increasing Europe’s primary metal production, the recycling of waste streams containing precious metals is essential to ease supply demand deficits, according to the JRC. It is also a way to obtain these metals for countries without natural resources.

The concept of 'urban mining' has attracted increasing attention in the last years, especially since such waste streams consists of much higher levels of precious metals than most ores contain nowadays.

Each kilogram of automotive catalysts hold up to about three grams of precious metal, whereas it is necessary to blast two tonnes of ore out of a South African mine to obtain the same amount. At the same time, three tonnes of mobile phones contains on average one kilo of gold, five kilo of silver and 150 grams of palladium. But the recycling rate of catalytic converters is still only about 55%, whilst for e-waste it is even worse, about 10%.

Most of this value has been slipping through our fingers, as the majority of this e-waste is still landfilled or ends up in countries such as India or China, where unregulated methods of recycling are often used.

However, large investments have been announced or recently been made by European companies for the construction of recycling facilities for precious metals or the expansion of existing facilities, despite complaints about high power costs from the industry.

In 2011, BASF – one of the largest global producers of automotive and industrial catalysts - invested 3.75 million Euros in doubling the capacity of its pre-processing plant for catalysts in the UK.

Last year, one of its fiercest competitors, Umicore, announced a 40% expansion of the recycling facility at its Antwerp site, which will be realized in 2016. This plant gobbles up a 1,000 tonnes daily menu of slag, electrolysis slimes and drosses that is topped off with circuit boards, mobile phones and catalysts.

Out of this mixture, the company recovers base metals - such as lead, copper and nickel – as well as gold, silver, the big five (platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium) and indium, selenium and tellurium.

Umicore will invest 100 million Euro to increase the recycling capacity. “A larger facility will bring the advantage of scale,” says Luc Gellens, vice-president of Umicore's precious metal division. This means that Umicore can keep the fee for its refining services as low as possible.

Umicore's growth focus is on 'global trends of materials scarcity, more stringent emission control, electric cars and clean energy,' according to its latest strategic vision. In the coming years, the company will develop more materials for rechargeable batteries and photovoltaic applications, new automotive catalysts and conduct fuel cell research.

In 2011, Umicore already built a recycling demonstration facility to deal with the expected growth in the availability of end-of-life rechargeable batteries at its Antwerp site. The recovery of rare earth metals from these batteries is developed in partnership with the French company Solvay.

Until recently, most metal mining and refining companies opted to outsource the treatment of residues to the likes of Umicore for which this is its main feedstock, apart from e-waste and catalysts. But now, several of them are investing in equipment to refine these streams in-house since the mining of complex ores results in concentrates with a higher 'impurity' content, leading to a larger and more complex residue stream.

Hence, metals specialist Boliden is opening a 25 tonnes silver recovery facility at its zinc smelter in Finland this year (27 million Euro investment).

Last year, Aurubis opened a 50 million Euro facility for the recovery of precious metal from anode sludge in Hamburg, which may raise its annual gold production from 35 tonnes to 50 tonnes. The company has terminated its contract with Umicore which could lead to a 10% fall in Umicore’s gold output, according to a report by Berenberg Equity Research.

Also, both companies have enlarged their European e-waste recycling capacity substantially, to fully profit of this additional revenue stream as stricter recycling standards are set by the European Union and to make up for increasing costs and declining fees for treatment of waste and refining of metals.

Most globally competing companies are rushing to get hold of any supply stream that contains precious metals. In 2013, Belgium based Nyrstar announced a 350 million Euro investment to convert its Australian lead smelter – named Port Pirie - into an advanced metals recovery and refining facility and enhance its position in Europe by buying and refurbishing facilities here, to start treating e-waste and its own precious metal containing residues. As a result, Nyrstar also intends to end its contract with Umicore by 2016, according to Berenberg Equity Research.

Port Pirie will become more competitive by being capable of treating a variety of by-products and producing a range of metals, combined with a focus on Asian markets. The Chinese demand for metals such as platinum, palladium and iridium that no catalyst can do without, will grow strongly since stringent emission laws came into force in 2013. The Chinese truck market is the world's largest as it annually produces over 2 million units.

Other new facilities outside Europe are mainly located in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China and North America. In 2010, Xstrata doubled the recycling capacity for e-waste at its Canadian copper smelter to 100,000 tonnes, where not only North American e-waste is recycled, but also European.

Also, Teck Resources announced an $210 million (155 million Euro) investment to increase its Canadian e-scrap recycling capacity, which will be completed in 2014.

Companies such as Xstrata, Umicore, Aurubis and Boliden run large, centralised facilities. By contrast, Tetronics International has fine-tuned its plasma technology so it can recover – by smelting – the whole range of precious and rare metals from a high-value waste stream on a small scale, which could complement, or even be disruptive, to these larger scale facilities as markets expand.

Tetronics has implemented its technology at eight precious metal recovery plants worldwide, with a further three plants due this year in North America and in Europe. More than half of the existing plants are located in the Far East and owned by BASF Catalyst, Taiwanese company Solar Applied Materials Technology and Japanese industrial product manufacturer Furuya Metal.

The standard capacity of a precious metal recovery plant processing spent catalysts and e-waste is 2,000 to 7,000 tonnes a year, “Such a plant would have an annual output of 150,000 to 170,000 troy ounces of platinum group metals for spent catalysts and between 250,000 to 450,000 troy ounces of precious metals for e-waste, depending on operational scale and waste quality,” says Dr David Deegan, Tetronics’ chief technical officer. The investment pays for itself in less than a year, adds Deegan. The technology can also be used for base metal recovery, where it can process up to 50,000 tonnes of waste a year.

One advantage of treating precious metal-containing scrap locally is a reduction in the transport needed, which reduces both financial and environmental costs. Deegan estimates that the UK alone could support five to 10 Tetronics plants, creating 20 jobs per installation, excluding management.

Such a local approach would also help with sustainability and security, he says. “In a European context, it would give member states independence in their ability to sustainably handle their own waste streams on a competitive basis – and provide each territory with security on critical metals, so as not to export unrealisable value.”

 

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