• Is it economically worthwhile to recover non-precious metals such as nickel from spent catalyst?



  • Susan Simpson, Johnson Matthey, Susan.Simpson@matthey.com

    With the vision of a circular economy for our products and a world that is cleaner for future generations, minimising disposal and designing out waste is essential. And in many instances, it makes economic sense as well. 

    Spent catalyst contributes significantly to the solid waste generated by our industry. Recovery of non-precious metals minimises disposal costs. Three main drivers determine whether recovery is economical: metal value, transportation costs, and processing costs.

    Metal value is determined by the market commodity price. Currently, copper, nickel, and zinc products will typically generate a positive net value when recovered. Iron products generally result in a cost. Molybdenum could go either way, being very dependent on the current pricing.

    Transportation costs are dependent on distance from site to the processing facility and the amount of material to be moved. If a site is remote, transportation costs can flip the economics of metal recovery. Also, if the spent catalyst has a lower metals content, the transportation costs can be a dominant economic factor.

    Processing costs remain relatively stable. However, if heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, or cadmium are present on the spent catalyst, recovery may not be feasible.
    Other factors to consider include the reduction in disposal cost and TRI (toxics release inventory) recordings and shrinking resources of metals globally.

    At Johnson Matthey, designing out waste with innovative catalyst solutions is core to supporting this vision. Our patented Core Shell catalyst technology places active catalyst material where it is needed most and leads to intensification of the catalytic reactions within a flow sheet. For example, Johnson Matthey’s KATALCO 57-6Q series of steam methane reforming catalysts has reduced the active nickel metal by over half while still maintaining the performance customers count on. In addition, coated components offered by Johnson Matthey can intensify a reaction while reducing the overall weight of material used by over half in steam methane reforming applications. Both solutions approach the recycling issue by reducing the waste materials generated. 

    The effects of the three main drivers determine if it is economical to recover non-precious metals from spent catalysts. In addition, next generation catalysts are being designed to minimise waste materials generated. Both support our industry’s commitment to environmental sustainability. 


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