Just outside Antwerp in Belgium, next to the river Schelde, Umicore’s 15-metre high smelter gobbles up a 1,000 tonnes daily menu of slag, electrolysis slimes and drosses that is topped off with circuit boards, mobile phones and industrial or automotive catalysts.
Out of this mixture the company recovers not only base metals – such as lead, copper and nickel – but also precious metals, gold, silver, along with the big five (platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium) including rare metals such as indium, selenium and tellurium.
The recycling of products containing precious metals has become essential to help relieve on-going ‘supply versus demand’ deficits; especially since mining companies are failing to keep pace with rising industrial demand for these metals due to depleting ores, labour unrest and power outages.
In the last 10 years, Umicore invested €500m (£413m) in this recycling facility as part of the transformation from a primary mining company – its predecessor Union Minière started over 200 years ago and was active in Belgium colony Congo – to one that makes full use of the concept ‘urban mining’.
Nowadays, the recycling division lies at the very heart of Umicore, which has become a speciality materials company with industrial operations on all continents. Globally, Umicore produces about one in three catalytic converters for passenger vehicles while around one in four batteries for laptops and mobile phones contain Umicore materials.
Last year, Umicore reached the top of business and society magazine, Corporate Knights’ 2013 list of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Companies. Also, the company was one of the first gold refiners to pass the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) Responsible Gold audit.
‘Metal prices are very volatile, so we prefer to refer to the revenue excluding metal prices – which are much more stable.’
However, 2013 was also the bearer of bad news as Umicore’s annual turnover decreased by €2bn (£1.6bn) to about €10bn (£8.2bn) because of declining prices for gold and platinum.
“Metal prices are very volatile,” explains Luc Gellens, vice-president of Umicore’s precious metals division. “Hence, we prefer to refer to the revenue excluding metal prices – around €2.4bn (£1.9bn) in 2012 and 2% down in 2013 – which are much more stable. “As a company we charge a fee for our refining service, which holds its own value even when metal prices are plummeting.”
Despite its decreased turnover, Umicore announced a 40% expansion of its recycling facility so it will be capable of treating 500,000 tonnes of feedstock per annum in 2016.
“We are going to de-bottleneck the existing facility to treat more tonnes of material with the same installations,” says Gellens. This is expected to make it possible to realise such a huge expansion for a mere €100m (£82m) over a two-year period, which is part of the annual budget of €250m (£206m) that Umicore spends on investments globally.
As more volumes will be treated, one of the first things to consider is the logistical side of the operation. “This starts with the supply as more trucks have to come in and more materials have to be sampled and stored. And, after recycling, also taken out. Of everything, the capacity needs to be increased,” continues Gellens.
This also goes for the smelter, and (while any aspect of this technology is kept confidential) Gellens explains that: “It can be seen as a cooking pot in which they are going to produce more by enhancing the chemical reaction inside this pot”. He adds: “For this, a little bit more pepper and salt will be added, together with another ingredient so to speak.
“Also, with 40% more volume, one could think that the impact on the environment will increase with the same percentage “For example, that there will be 40% more smoke coming through the chimneys, but that is not going to happen. We are going to realise this expansion without extra impact on the environment.”
This is even more important since Umicore’s recycling facility is built next to a residential area. “This is highly unusual and makes our facility very sensitive for emissions. It is strictly controlled by the authorities and we do everything to keep the impact on the population and the environment as low as possible,” stresses the company vice-president.
‘As far as we know, we are the first metal treating company that has a biological waste treatment facility.’
Hence, a major part of the investment is spent on technological solutions to prevent any increase in the impact on the surrounding environment, regarding sound, water and air. From April, and with the aim of limiting the use of trucks in the area, inland shipping will be used to bring in containers filled with material for Umicore from the harbour of Antwerp to its newly built dock.
Also, a biological waste treatment facility has been constructed. “As far as we know, we are the first metal treating company that has such a facility,” says Gellens. “Normally, metal particles are poisonous to bacteria, but a special process has been developed whereby these bacteria are capable of removing heavy metal from waste water discharges – to achieve low parts per billion.”
As for the reason for such an immense expansion, Gellens says that: “At first, there will be more and more need for the recycling of e-waste, industrial catalysts and residues from miners and refiners” and this expansion is aimed on fulfilling that need. The vice-president again: “Demand for copper, zinc and lead is increasing, but it is becoming more difficult to find ore sufficiently rich to be mined.”
The mining of complex ore bodies results in concentrates with a higher ‘impurity’ content, leading to a larger and more complex residue stream. Until recently, metal miners and refiners opted to outsource the treatment of these residues to the likes of Umicore. But quite a few are reportedly now investing in additional equipment to refine these streams in-house such as metals specialist, Boliden, whose 25 tonnes silver recovery facility at its zinc smelter in Finland is opening this year.
Last year, Aurubis, another metals specialist opened a €50m (£41m) facility for the recovery of precious metal from anode sludge in Hamburg. The company has terminated its contract with Umicore which could lead to a 10% fall in Umicore’s gold output, according to a report by Berenberg Equity Research.
Mining and metals business, Nyrstar, also a Umicore supplier, announced a €350m (£289m) investment to convert its Australian lead smelter into an advanced metals recovery and refining facility to start treating its own precious metal containing residues.
“We are also expanding because we want to become even more competitive,” adds Gellens. A larger facility is expected to bring the advantage of scale so Umicore can keep the fee for its refining services as low as possible. Gellens says that Japanese competitors have now entered this market and he foresees that in the future the Chinese will also become active to obtain these resources.
‘We are putting much effort in an environmentally responsible way of recycling – that comes at a certain financial cost.’
“We are playing on a global market. As over 50% of our supply comes from outside Europe, we are in favour of free competition and trade, but there are different ways to treat these materials. Here, we are putting so much effort in an environmentally responsible way of recycling, with the best available technology and the best protection of our people. That comes at a certain financial cost.”
“But in Africa and Asia, there are companies and people working in very poor conditions with these toxic products, without protection of the environment or the people involved,” warns Gellens before adding: “While we are not against free trade, we are in favour of a level playing field.”
Published: April 2014 in Recycling & Waste World.