Every Friday morning, SAfm’s AMLive’s radio anchor Sakina Kamwendo speaks to Martin Creamer, publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly. Reported here is this Friday’s At the Coalface transcript:
Kamwendo: The first sod will be turned this year on a billion-rand project that has the potential change the face of South Africa’s struggling platinum business.
Creamer: It is wonderful news coming out of the North West at the Sedibelo mine, that is the Pallinghurst mine. Pallinghurst is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and headed by Arne Frandsen and Brian Gilbertson is the chairman. They have been working diligently for years now on a new way of processing the platinum ore.
They said from the start they want to be a 21st century miner, they don’t want to be in the deep, dark and dangerous situations. They want to also, on the processing front, have a breakthrough and now they have got it. They are prepared to put their money where their mouth is and is putting this plant up there that is going to really change the face of the way we deal with platinum.
What is going to happen there is that instead of using so much energy, like 1 200 oC to smelt, smelting won’t be part of the equation. They will dissolve out, through a hydrometallurgical route, the important metals beforehand. So, you don’t need that enormous amount of heat. It is tremendously wasteful and I don’t know why we have done it pyrometallurgically for so long, because what you are doing is that you are using heat to heat waste. Why do that? The waste is called gangue, you don’t want that material, you want the metals and minerals, use the heat to process that, which is going to happen now.
They have done five years of studies and have got piles of data. They say this is absolutely doable and will be a tenth of the cost of a smelter. We know that when the platinum industry wanted to put up a smelter recently in Zimbabwe, they said it was going to cost $2-billion. They are saying that this will be less then $100-million. So it takes it down from a capital point of view, but from an operating point of view it changes everything. It means that from the mining, you mine differently, because this particular process doesn't mind chrome in the ore, whereas a lot of the smelting does. We have had smelters blow up because of the chrome.
This can take the chrome and it can therefore take lower-grade material. You have got a situation where mining changes from the start, then when you go through you are almost doing the refining right away, so on site you can actually produce material. So the big ‘b-word’ beneficiation comes in. We have always had such a separation of the factory and the mine. You get your product from the mine and then remotely this will be dealt with. Sometimes even at the processing stage it will go out of the country and maybe Germans would refine it.
Then it would come back if you want to put it in a catalytic converter. With this you can actually order what material you want. You might want platinum for a catalytic converter, then you can tell them in advance and they can produce it on site and get it to you. You can even have your factory on site if necessary. It is the same with the upcoming fuel cell. They can actually prepare the materials in advance, which makes it much cheaper and gets rid of the refining side.
The good news is that they can also use it for refractory gold, which would mean that we wouldn’t have to use cyanide in our gold anymore. They say it can also be applied to base metals, copper. This has been a study, it was a twinkle in the eye since 1981, so it has been going for eighteen years and the person doing it, used to work for Mintek, Keith Liddell. It is called the Kell process, it takes his initials. Just shows you that if you stick at something then you get the backing. The last five years it has been heavily backed by Pallinghurst, also the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), which is working very closely with Pallinghurst.
They are very keen on coming down this cost curve when it comes to energy and here is an example now where it is going to happen. It is being accompanied by better news around eventual marketing of platinum. We have got to be very patient with platinum, because the price isn’t good at the moment. One of the leading analysts yesterday, Cadiz Corporation Solutions Peter Major, said platinum has the best price improvement prospects. It is better then any other commodity and he says he is even putting his pension fund money into platinum, because it has got that great future.
Kamwendo: The wanton destruction of valuable cobalt in local platinum processing can now be brought to a speedy end.
Creamer: This is again through this technology, one of the bonuses is that we have been destroying cobalt. Cobalt is in the platinum ore and gold ore. We know that it is in demand. People are scrambling around the world now for cobalt, because it goes into electric cars and microchips that Apple and Samsung use. It is a sought after commodity. What have we been doing with it? Burning it.
You can see that even when we attempted to get it out of the acid mine drainage (AMD) out at Springs. We had Dr Robbie Robinson out there and put out a great formula how to get cobalt out of the AMD at that situation at Springs and the Department of Water Affairs turned him down. So, nowhere has cobalt been able to pop out its head. We see it coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when they mine the copper they get the cobalt. This has been a great added value for them.
Now there is an opportunity with this Kell process to actually recover that cobalt. It is a national patrimony. This belongs to us and how we have dealt with it all these years is ridiculous. A lot of the co-products with platinum make quite a lot of money. We often get nickel, palladium, rhodium and if we can get cobalt as well it adds to the value of the products quite phenomenally, because the price has really done well. We know that a lot of the people that are making use of microchips that have got cobalt in like Apple and Samsung, can’t afford to have a product that child labour is involved with.
What is coming out of the DRC they have been very scared to actually touch this stuff in case it comes back and people won’t use because they say they are using child labour to get the cobalt. So this is an important opportunity now to make sure that we also get a look in with cobalt and that will happen, because Pallinghurst say in two years time they will be cutting the ribbon of this new plant. At that stage they will also be producing the cobalt with the platinum group metals. We know it can also be done with gold.
They are saying that this particularly technology we are not holding for ourselves. We are prepared to share this with the South African industry, which is also a good attitude. The big shareholding that they have got from the State-owned IDC they have to have that sort of attitude.
Kamwendo: South Africa’s biggest chain factory this week received a major modernisation investment.
Creamer: This was fantastic news, Scaw Metals has been around for more than 80 years and has had a chain factory in Vereeniging for more than 30 years. This week we saw R100-million being ploughed into that and automated this section and modernised this section to bring out a large diameter chain used in heavy lifting and the masterlink components that they export.
This will be done in an automated fashion, but there is not going to be one job loss the 253 people will still be doing it in the manual route, but the new section factory will give them this volume that they can then put into the world and also into our industry. Of course, this chain is used right across the industry in conveying and mining in all sorts of activities. Also the masterlinks, a lot of them get exported.
This is one of the four different divisions of Scaw Metals. It is a big company and this is the McKinnon Chain factory, out at Vereeniging, getting this shot in their arm. One can also say the big partner here a majority shareholder again is the State-owned IDC with 74% of the shareholding. We know that another activity by the IDC is that they are trying to get Scaw a super scrap, because Scaw has been battling to get scrap iron for their ferrous division.
We know that people in South Africa want to export that scrap, because the costs are in rands and the sale price in dollars so it is a big incentive. It is hard to stop them from doing it, a lot of the efforts to stop people from exporting scrap have not been successful, because they say it gives employment to a lot of poor people who collect that and it needs to get a good return.
Scaw has been battling to get his hands on good scrap. Now, with this effort to take the magnetite that is stored at the Palabora mine they can turn that into super scrap and that can be fed into the electric arc furnaces of the Scaw Metals’ main factory in Germiston.
Kamwendo: Thanks very much. Martin Creamer is publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly.