Environmental impact of the precious metal value chain on refineries (ERTC)

The world is aligned to fight climate change and has set challenging climate targets, which are shown, for example, in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Steffen kitzing
Heraeus Precious Metals

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Furthermore, the EU and US aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and China by 2060. Europe is well positioned to play a leading role in this effort with the established Emissions Trading System and the Green Deal, which incentivise the innovation of low carbon technologies.

These aspirational goals put pressure on all industries to implement actions that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One example is the carbon-intensive oil refinery industry. This traditional sector is facing an increasingly dynamic business environment, driven by government initiatives, changing customer trends (e.g. less fuel demand due to e-mobility), and even by banks or investors who increasingly integrate climate aspects into their decision-making. However, the companies in the refinery industry stepped up to tackle these challenges and have set ambitious climate targets for themselves.

Among others, precious metals catalysts like reforming catalysts are impacting refineries’ emissions for purchased goods and services. The International Platinum Group Metals Association (IPA) recently conducted a life cycle analysis study on the environmental impact of platinum group metals (PGMs) with the example of automotive catalysts. Comparing the carbon footprint of primary (mining) and secondary (recycling) metals, PGMs showed a significant CO2 saving potential for recycled PGMs of up to 98.5% compared to primary PGMs from mines. The main reason behind the significant CO2 footprint for primary PGMs from mines is the energy-intensive mining process. To extract 2-6 grams of PGMs, one ton of ore must undergo extensive processing. Furthermore, coal is used as an energy source in South Africa, which is the industry’s biggest PGM mining country.

When looking at the carbon footprint of recycled PGMs in detail, the IPA study states that with 65% the smelting/pyrometallurgical process is the main contributor to the carbon footprint of recycled PGMs from automotive catalysts. The hydrometallurgical refining step only accounts for 35% of the carbon footprint. From the study, we can deduct that by using only hydrometallurgical processing in the recycling of other materials, the lowest carbon footprint can be achieved for recycled PGMs. Thus, from a sustainability standpoint, this type of processing seems to be preferable. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that any recycling effort produces important environmental benefits, most notably the reduction of that industry’s carbon footprint.

From the IPA study we learned that precious metals from secondary sources are a good intermediate solution to significantly reduce GHG emissions for PGM catalysts, while primary precious metal producers and recycling companies are working vigorously towards carbon neutrality. However, the quantity of secondary precious metals is limited. Primary metals from mines are crucial to supply the total market demand. In 2021, primary metals will account for around 75% of platinum supply, while only one-quarter of supply will be secondary metals via recycling. Reforming catalysts are already managed within the recycling loop. Nonetheless, it is critical that these secondary metals are certified by recycling companies, because currently market-grade platinum, specifying metal purity only, is returned into the loop. The certification will be crucial for transparent carbon accounting and a company’s carbon footprint impact.

Following the law of demand and supply, increased demand for certified low carbon metals can drive prices for these limited available metals. Nevertheless, it is certainly a worthwhile investment. In 2021, SFA Oxford projects the demand for fresh platinum used in catalysts for the petroleum industry to be 8553 kg globally, leading to a total GHG emission savings potential of around 271 million kg CO2-eq per year for the petroleum industry using secondary instead of market-grade metals. Although this represents less than 1% of the industry’s GHG emissions, it remains a quick and easy approach to optimise the carbon footprint of refineries in the short term.

Heraeus Precious Metals offers a wide range of recycling services for all precious metals including platinum, palladium as well as rhenium. Capitalising on its many decades of global leadership, Heraeus is contributing positively to the environment by making circular economy for precious metal products accessible to various industries. Through hydrometallurgical processes, the company converts spent precious metal containing catalysts like reforming, isomerisation or hydrogenation catalysts back into precious metals in the required form at highest purity levels. Heraeus’ services include thermal treatment, sampling and analysis, precious metal recycling, and support in logistics and waste management.

For more information contact: steffen.kitzing@heraeus.com


This short article originally appeared in the 2021 ERTC Newspapers, produced by PTQ / DigitalRefining.

You can view the Day 1 Newspaper HERE
You can view the Day 2 Newspaper HERE

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