Precious metals catalyst management: measuring quality of service (ERTC)

In today’s highly competitive, global petroleum and petrochemical industry, the importance of supply management has never been greater.

Bradford Cook
Sabin Metal Corporation

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Article Summary

Great care is taken with regard to the effectiveness of every individual process, the safe use of each man-hour, and the overall quality of machinery, raw materials and contracted services. The decision on what fresh catalyst to purchase is an excellent example. Selectivity, activity, physical properties and overall efficiency are carefully considered in order to maximise yield and product quality. Thankfully, all of these parameters can be scientifically measured through simulations, pilot plants and bench testing.

Clearly, effectiveness, safety and quality are just as important when choosing a PGM (platinum group metals) reclaimer for spent catalyst precious metals recovery, but sadly no simulations are there to help. Quality of service (QOS) in precious metals refining can be challenging to measure, but concerns three essential areas:

• Practices: safeguarding against the ethically non-compliant and the financially unstable
• Performance: verifying proper processing, sampling and analysis methodology
• Paperwork: gaining a detailed understanding of technical contract terms and knowing where these terms can dramatically affect your precious metal return

Practices: Pre-qualifying and Auditing
It is obvious that without an honest precious metals refiner one cannot hope to receive QOS. To protect financial interests, as well as reputation and legal complications, customers are encouraged to exercise a high level of diligence before selecting their PGM recycler. Regulatory and legal entities, and both industry and traditional media should be consulted to ensure a proper investigation. Requesting records and certifications for safety, environmental and other regulatory adherence is imperative. Lastly, it is always highly recommended that the customer audit the precious metals refiner site to see first hand the facilities, records and practices.

Performance: On-site Witnessing
The second important consideration in this equation is proper weighing of the catalyst shipment, accurate sampling and the highest industry standard of precious metals analysis. It takes trained people, calibrated equipment, time and experience to accomplish this. Quality cannot and does not come cheap, and degrees of accuracy are in direct correlation to the investment made in creating them. In the precious metals business, the false economy in adopting a “lowest bidder” mentality results in incorrect sampling, inaccurate assay, improper disposal of wastes, or other improper  behaviour.

Once the pre-qualification audit has been accomplished, the client or their third-party representative should also attend during the PGM catalyst weighing and sampling process. The second pair of eyes and ears on-site helps to eliminate the human error factor, provides valuable corroboration of the calibration of machinery, and maintains custody control of the samples drawn for final PGM analysis.

Paperwork: Understanding Critical Contract Details
With the typical life expectancy of a precious metals catalyst batch being two to five years, most people in charge of purchasing and procuring PGM-related products and services usually only see one or two catalyst change-outs before they are promoted or moved to a new area of responsibility. Many companies remain unaware of the more technical aspects of some contractual details, several of which can lead to major losses of revenue. It is therefore highly recommended that a programme be developed and formalised in-house to preserve the historical data and specialised knowledge learned from every PGM reclaim. Some of the contractual details that can drastically decrease metal value returns and/or increase costs include:

• The cheapest is not the best: The obvious and typical metrics (processing fees, shipping costs, speed of turnaround and metals accountability) represent a small fraction of the central cost, and yet nearly all companies base their decisions on PGM refining contract awards on these outward appearances.
• The agreed variation between assays, also known as the “splitting limit”: Once the buyer and seller have their analytical results in hand, the splitting limit defines the maximum acceptable difference. If the two parties’ assays are within the splitting limit, the average of the two is calculated and the money can change hands. If the two assays are further apart than the splitting limit, a control sample is sent to a third-party lab to act as “umpire” and settle the dispute. Standard industry practice on PGM catalyst calls for a splitting limit of 1% relative, but less-than-scrupulous precious metals refiners would try to up this to 5% or even 10% relative. This splitting limit manipulation forces the compromise of huge amounts of money.
• LOI or “loss on ignition” determination: A certain amount of the weight in each drum of catalyst is water, carbon, or occasionally remnants of solvents and other contaminants. For accurate calculation of PGM content, it is necessary to know the exact amount of “pure” catalyst. LOI samples are therefore taken, weighed and analysed under carefully controlled parameters to volatise off all that is not catalyst. This percentage of weight lost is called the LOI. Understanding the correct formulas to be used when calculating LOI will protect your company’s best interest and guarantee that your full precious metal value is received.
• Limiting the total monetary value that is represented by each assay lot: This practice provides another level of control and risk management. It is in no one’s best interest to have too much monetary value within any one assay lot, because standard deviation and repeatability must always be taken into account. Laboratory accuracy does not increase simply because more money is at stake. Make sure that your precious metals refiner creates a large number of smaller-value (for example, $500,000) assay lots rather than a lesser number of larger-value lots.
• Penalties and hidden charges: Some PGM reclaimers apply penalties within the “fine print” for powder content, carbon content or even minuscule levels of certain other elements. These penalty charges can exceed $40,000 per instance if the client is not well educated in such hidden risks.

In the precious metals industry, it doesn’t matter what you know until you know what matters. Know what the true financial priorities are, educate your employees and establish your own internal best practices for precious metal catalyst life-cycle management. Know the details on how your materials will be sampled and treated and have them verified. And most of all, know exactly with whom you are dealing.

For more information contact: bcook@sabinmetal.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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