Member Spotlight Review – Nelsa Martins reflects on PGM processing in South Africa

26 April 2021  Sarah Masterson

Nelsa Martins – Technical Consultant @ Solutions 4U, South Africa

2020 was a challenging year for most people -financially, socially and mostly emotionally. With the already crippled economy within SA, and the real threat of power outages, restricted power availability and YOY increases in power of up to 15% for the next five years, concentrating, smelting and refining processing capabilities within SA will be severely impacted. While the SA plants have excess physical capacity to refine, they will be severely impacted by the power restrictions and will thus be unable to run the plants to full capacity. As a result of the large percentage of the population employed within the mining industry, the reality of new COVID virus strains, lack of COVID vaccines and vaccinated employees, prevalence of immune-compromised diseases already within the country will continue to have a large impact on the workforce within mining and their ability to perform optimally.

In my opinion, industry will firstly need to assist the power house in SA to deliver power back on to the grid by alternative means that makes use of the abundance of natural resources in SA – sun, wind, water and Precious Metals! By converting energy from the sun and wind into power and having the ability to use and store the excess energy to be used during peak times into gasses like hydrogen through the use of PGM bearing electro-catalysers and then regenerating power on demand from the stored hydrogen back to power through PGM bearing fuel cells – that would be a really successful South African story! Whilst early adoption of these technologies are initially expensive, with government regulations incentivising industry using these technologies, and penalising ‘polluters of carbon emissions’, this may create the tipping point for industry buy in, which in term would drive down the costs of these technologies and make their products of power and hydrogen price competitive.

Secondly, the mining industry has already proposed to government that they bring in additional vaccines to vaccinate their employees and in turn contribute to the ‘herd immunity ‘with the SA population.  This proposal is unfortunately, still under consideration and thus the spread of COVID continues to grow.

But despite all these challenges, life must go on and business needs to get back to making the economy thrive by providing job securities for employees and their families and contributing positively to the crippled world-wide economies. S4U was privileged enough to be part of an improved economy by developing a hydro-process for an organisation that upgrades low grade Precious Group Metal containing residues into high grade concentrates that can then be sold and refined into saleable products. Because all process development requires an extensive amount of laboratory and pilot scale trials, the trials had to be conducted with remote guidance from S4U as a result of the COVID restrictions and extensive lockdown protocols. Personal on site consulting took on a new face through Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings within the laboratory and pilot plant space – whoever would have thought that processes could be developed and tested remotely! The process is currently advanced and plant scale trials are already underway.