Why is the PGM Recovery and Recycling Industry Growing?
The main drivers for the recycling of any material will always include the value of the material that would otherwise be going to waste and the reduced energy and processing costs required for recycling versus primary sourcing. In the case of PGMs, the high metal prices (for example, at the time of writing, Pt is worth US$1016 per troy oz) allow for a certain amount of flexibility in terms of developing an economically viable recovery/recycling operation, as do the large potential CO2 emission savings when compared to primary mining.
Estimates place the total global PGM reserves at approximately 88,800 t. To put that into some kind of context, cumulative global production between 1900 and 2008 was 12,900 t. Whilst public perception often focusses on the scarcity of PGMs, it is clear that, despite increased global demand (in 2013 UNEP estimated up to a five- to ten-fold increase in metals usage by 2050), these global reserves are not in danger of running out in the immediate future. The overall picture is not quite so clear cut however, the most readily accessible ores have been, or are currently being, mined and therefore the ease with which PGMs can be extracted from the earth is becoming increasingly difficult as locations containing high-enough grade ores become more inaccessible. The focus therefore shifts towards re-using those PGMs which have already been extracted from the ground.
As technologies to recycle PGMs have developed over time it consequently becomes harder to justify the case for opening new, or extending existing, mines. The building of a new mine requires a massive upfront cost and it will typically take 5-8 years before the first metal outputs begin to be seen. On top of this, the current economic situation has seen prices of PGMs fall (the price of Pt is currently nearly half of what it was in February 2011, with other PGMs suffering similarly) and this has further lowered the incentive for expanding or opening new mines as they become rather less profitable to run.
Modern life is dependent upon technology, which is in turn dependent upon the use of metals. For example mobile phones contain over 40 different metals, including Pt, and Pt, Pd and Rh are used extensively in catalytic converters for cars. Some 15 million cars are scrapped in the US and Canada alone every year and if a car were to be crushed, a typical PGM concentration in the resultant remains would be approximately 2000 g/t which compares very favourably to a typical 5-8 g/t found in ore in a particularly good seam in a South African mine. From a business viewpoint, these ‘enriched’ PGM recycling starting materials are obviously highly attractive to minimise waste of time, energy and raw materials.
The uneven distribution of metal ores across the globe can lead to political factors influencing the availability of metals and as a result PGMs were included on the list of EU critical raw materials following a review in 2013. This is driving many nations to strive towards the vision of a circular economy in which they become self-sufficient in their PGM usage; by necessity this will therefore require the efficient recycling of existing metal supplies and is reflected by the provision of government funding across the world to address this issue.
There are still many challenges to overcome but as metal recycling technology continually evolves and improves to become more efficient and cost-competitive there is a strong argument to be made that over the coming decades primary mining will be seen more as filling the gap between demand and recycled metal supply rather than, as it has traditionally been viewed, the major supply route.