Let’s talk about Osmium

Osmium – the hardest of the eight precious metals, the one with the highest density of all metallic elements on earth, and with an annual production of just 350kg also the rarest of them all. Why is it we aren’t hearing about it more?

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While doing research for a paper I presented at the IPMI’s recent seminar in Budapest (Hungary) earlier this month, the first apparent issue was: is Osmium a precious metal in the first place? It certainly checks some of the boxes – precious metals, generally speaking, are very conductive, but another criteria is that they do not oxidize in normal atmosphere and temperature. Osmium is known to oxidize in contact with air, and to form Osmium tetroxide which is highly poisonous on top of this embarrassing effect. It also has a strong odor. Which is why Os used to live on the fringes of the precious metals world, used to harden alloys (such as in golden fountain pen tips), as a contrast agent for tissue samples in scanning electron microscopy and a few others. Osmium, then, is a bit like Pluto, formerly known as “Planet Pluto”. It hangs around with the rest of the gang but isn’t really a member of the club. Or is it?

Just when I was beginning to regret having taken on this topic, the story took a dramatic turn. I came across the “Osmium Institut zur Inverkehrbringung und Zertifizierung von Osmium GmbH” (Institute for the distribution and certification of Osmium Ltd). Let’s call them OSI, if you don’t mind, although the acronym had a different connotation in the past. The company, with head office in Germany, developed a process to crystallize osmium, rendering it not only completely harmless but also quite beautiful. The crystals are already being used in the production of upscale jewelry and wrist watches, and they have been produced as 1 ounce discs for the collector’s and investment market.

While osmium crystals sparkle almost like diamonds, they cannot be industrially grown and are much rarer in quantity. Ingo Wolf, general manager of OSI, explained: “To mine a single ounce of osmium, 10,000 tons of metal ore, usually platinum ore, are required. Concentrations have been declining for years and there will be a point in the foreseeable future where we simply run out of osmium because of this”. If and when this happens,  the increased use of osmium in jewelry applications would lead to even higher rarity of the metal.

The caveat? Making the crystals is expensive, and the yield is low. While an ounce of “regular” osmium powder trades at around US$ 425 / ozt in today’s market, the crystals sell for around EUR 850 / g (approx. US$ 30,000 / ozt). This elevates them to a new product which has found its own market, much like diamonds consist of carbon.

Will osmium become a rare commodity for investors? That would require a market, and it remains to be seen if one will develop. With lessons to be learned from the fate of the diamond and the Bitcoin markets, there should certainly be room for a rare tangible asset that cannot be artificially reproduced.

Disclaimer: being a curious person, and passionate about technology metals, I have agreed to assist OSI with exploring business models for osmium investments since the conference. So expect to hear more once new milestones have been reached.

Hungry for Gold – A new Approach to E-Waste Recycling

Gold loaded microbes formatted
microbes loaded with gold

Mint Innovation, a startup company from Auckland, New Zealand, recently reported having succeeded in recovering gold, palladium and copper from electronic waste by exposing the material to microbes with a taste for the three metals. I spoke with Ollie Crush, the company’s chief scientist, to learn more about this process.

“The overarching goal is to come up with a lower capex / opex way of recovering precious metals from electronic waste”, said Crush. “You could then have decentralized plants compared to smelters that process large scales of waste. The advantage is more certainty for the aggregator, shorter time frames on payment, more transparency and a higher return of value from what they are collecting.”

The microbes are fairly selective in what they digest. According to Crush, they collect more than 90% of the gold, palladium and copper contained in printed circuit boards (PCBs), over 60% of the total value of the feedstock. The team is still working on expanding the selection capability to extract more of the most valuable components.

Mint team formattedThe precious metals are being retrieved from the loaded microbes by ashing them, another step that is still being optimized. Crush points out that developments into process refinements, and developments into other metals, are still limited because of the small size of the business. Mint Innovation are currently working on setting up a pilot plant in Auckland that would be capable of processing about 200 metric tons of PCBs per year using a 5,000 liter tank, yielding approximately 40kg of gold. The project is partially funded but the company is still seeking capital for the US$ 4-5 million plant.

A full size plant will be able to handle 10 times the volume, which is when larger markets than New Zealand will be needed to fully utilize the technology.

 

Progress in EV Battery Recycling – Kinsbursky Brothers

DSC_8707Some of you may have seen the guest blog on Tesla’s battery recycling program I contributed to Michelle Lynch’s new “Enabled Future” website last month. There is always more to pieces like this than meets the eye as, usually, more time is spent on research than on the actual writing of a new report. Traditionally, Tesla has been quite transparent in such matters but a lot of time has passed since the conception and launch of their “Gigafctory” in Nevada. Apparently, the company is working on novel approaches to the topic that they don’t want to see released prematurely.

So I contacted Kinsbursky Brothers to check if the information provided by Tesla in 2008 is still accurate. Daniel Kinsbursky, Vice President at Kinsbursky Brothers, kindly answered a set of questions I submitted.

gm-ev1Kinsbursky has been in business since the mid 1980’s, focusing on battery recycling from the start. Their first exposure to electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling came in the late 1990’s, when the lead acid batteries from General Motor’s iconic “EV1” had to be recycled. The company subsequently expanded into Li-ion by becoming the largest shareholder in Retriev Technologies with locations in Lancaster, OH, and Trail, BC (Canada).

With respect to the company’s overall business vis-a-vis the recycling of Tesla batteries, Kinsbursky explained: “We offer our battery recycling services to a number of different brands, across multiple applications beyond just EV and hybrid vehicles. For instance, we receive a significant volume of Li-Ion batteries from consumer applications, such as cell phones, laptops/tablets, power tools, and really almost any modern device that requires mobile power. That being said, we expect the largest growth area for our recycling services to be in the automotive sector.”

As a privately held company, Kinsbursky does not share information on recycling volumes or revenues. They did, however, confirm seeing a significant increase in EV batteries year over year, and expect volumes to increase at much higher rates once more of the Li-ion powered EV and hybrid vehicles reach the end of their life cycles. Kinsbursky points out that a recent market study estimates the worldwide Li-ion battery recycling market volume to be US$ 1.78 billion (in 2017) with a projection to reach US$ 23.7 billion by 2030.

Their process for battery recycling hasn’t changed significantly from what I described in my blog. However, Kinsbursky points out that “our goal is to be the first company to commercialize a battery-to-battery recycling process, whereby materials like lithium and cobalt recovered from a used battery can be reutilized in a new battery without any additional intermediary steps.”

With respect to the amount of material sent to landfill (25% according to Tesla’s 2008 blog), the good news is that this has been reduced to below 10%. Kinsbursky explained: “The amount of materials sent to the landfill from our process is largely dependent on the feedstock. Our process is capable of recovering all battery metals, including cobalt, nickel and lithium. Nevertheless, many battery packs utilize different grades of plastic and separator materials, which can consist of mixed quality grades of little recycling value in this commingled form. This is typically less than 10% of the battery mass. … It should also be noted that 10-15% of the battery mass is an electrolyte solvent which is digested within our process.”

Asked to comment on the pros and cons of their recycling method compared to ultra-high temperature incineration, Kinsbursky responded: “There are two common methodologies for the recycling and management of lithium ion batteries. hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical. Umicore’s process utilizes pyrometallurgical. Each type of system has its own benefits and deficiencies. As you stated, the UHT process would be more energy demanding than a hydrometallurgical process, and the hydrometallurgical system would be more forgiving in the type of material that can be processed.

Our current physical/mechanical process removes any electrical hazards and shreds and separates the batteries into usable commodity feeds. We are essentially a pre-processor for pyrometallurgical downstream processors. The advantage of our process is that it separates the metals into more concentrated feeds for the pyrometallurgical processes, thereby increasing efficiency and energy usage. Our long-term goal of producing battery materials will utilize additional hydrometallurgical processes on the back-end of our existing processes. We think over-all this will provide a lower energy pathway to closing the loop on lithium ion battery recycling when compared to the pyrometallurgical route.”

In conclusion, a lot of progress has been made, and new developments (David Kinsbusrsky did not want to comment on these) are on the horizon. Closed loops, or nearly closed recycling loops, seem possible provided that manufacturers and recyclers continue working together towards this goal.

Circle of Impact

40491595_10156784559923319_25945699866640384_n“Circle of Impact” is the new book from leadership consultant and keynote speaker Ed Brenegar. Ed is a fellow Triiibes member; Triiibes is a group of marketing enthusiasts and professionals founded by bestselling author Seth Godin back in 2008. Ed’s work is focused on people “in transition”, helping them to find the strength and confidence to make a difference, in their own lives as much as in the lives of others.

Thesis of the book is that everyone is born with the capacity to lead. Ed’s book teaches that leadership isn’t a position of authority, but a personal responsibility that anyone can learn. His “Circle of Impact” model is a problem solving tool everyone can use to create the change they wish to make.

Available on Amazon:  https://amzn.to/2KNWPYM

IPMI Europe: Seminar in Budapest in November

Here is another event that will be hard to miss: the European Chapter of the International Precious Metals Institute (IPMI) will be hosting its annual seminar in Budapest / Hungary from November 12 – 13 this year. I had the pleasure of attending last year’s seminar in Prague which was sold out. Presentations were very good (not just because I was speaking), and there was plenty of time to get to meet people who don’t typically attend the IPMI’s U.S. based summer conferences.

If you are pondering to attend I suggest you decide quickly because space is, once again, limited. Event title is “7 Precious Metals” and – spoiler alert – I will be talking about something completely different.

Head over to http://www.ec-ipmi.org/index.php/next-events-title/8-events/16-budapest-2018-seminar to learn more, and to register.

Hope to see you all there!

Don’t miss it: LBMA / LPPM Conference in Boston

IPMI’s friends of LBMA / LPPM will be hosting a conference in the U.S. later this year. This will be a high-caliber event with many interesting presentations to see, and great people to meet. There will also be a trade show, and IPMI will be an event sponsor. Don’t miss it! Dates are October 28-30 and the venue is the Boston Park Plaza. Head over to www.lbma.org.uk/events for more information, and to register.

Tech Metals – “Unstoppable”

Earlier this week, I visited my friends at Kitco News for a casual chat. They couldn’t help themselves but turn it into an article on Technology Metals with a slant on Rhodium. Click here to read it on the Kitco News website.