Housekeeping

Dear Subscribers,

Kitco 1Please pardon the prolonged absence. As some of you already know, I made a career change earlier this year. Joining BASF takes me full circle as head of their Precious Metals Chemicals business. On top, I am in charge of battery recycling and fuel cell materials which means I was put right into the candy store of Metal Megatrends.

BASF are ok with me continuing to write and speak at conferences, so the adventure will continue, albeit with a new angle now, going from looking at the world of what’s possible to including the world of what is industrially feasible today. This should be fun!

Because of the transition, I did neither speak at the Auto-Catalyst, Battery and Fuel Cell Seminar in Atlanta, nor did I submit a “Metal Megatrends” paper for the upcoming IPMI conference. Sorry about that, but I had to get my bearings back first. I’ll be back on stage soon.

The adventure will soon continue, so please visit on occasion. Thank you!

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Update: I am not associated with the Osmium Institute in any way.

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.