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Recoup Money From Your Spent Catalyst

Kevin Beirne, vice president at Sabin Metal Corp,
explains how you can reap additional revenues from
spent platinum process catalysts


Virtually all refining, petrochemical, and chemical processors throughout the Middle East use precious metal-bearing catalysts to facilitate reactions and for controlling or abating toxic or noxious emissions. Precious metal-bearing catalysts typically contain platinum group metals (PGMs), which include platinum, palladium, ruthenium, and rhodium, although some catalytic processes also employ other precious metals such as rhenium, gold, and silver.

Precious metal-bearing catalysts are configured in many different forms including monolithic structures, beads, pellets, powders, or extrudates (Figure 1); no matter what their composition, process catalysts have limited productive lives before they lose their efficacy and must be replaced with fresh stock. Useful lives of precious metal-bearing catalysts vary, depending upon how and where they are employed. When these catalysts can no longer function effectively, users send them to a precious metals refiner to recover and refine their remaining precious metals.

Precious metals refiners use a number of different techniques to recover PGMs and other precious metals from spent catalysts; some are different than others depending upon specific chemistry, application, and other factors. However, all refiners must address certain key issues such as point-to-point logistics and transportation (many times across oceans and continents), accurate materials documentation, process efficiencies, environmental compliance, process turnaround times, and many other considerations that have a direct affect on returned values to catalyst owners.

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Figure 1: Precious metal-bearing catalysts can take several forms.

While each of these functions is important in the overall recovery/refining process, sampling spent catalysts is the most critical element in the entire process, since it requires achieving a virtually homogenous mass from a spent catalyst lot from which individual samples are subsequently removed for laboratory analysis. Without accurate sampling methods it is virtually impossible for any precious metals refiner to determine the precious metals content remaining in a spent catalyst lot. However, generating a homogenous mass for sampling is much is easier said than done; spent processing catalysts and their carriers (these typically include soluble or insoluble alumina, silica/alumina, or zeolites) are far from homogenous because of accumulated process contaminants of various densities, such as sulfur, carbon, solvents, and water.

Because sampling is such a critical element in the overall refining/recovery process, catalyst owners should look carefully at a prospective refiner’s procedures, policies, and equipment.


100% Sampling Is Essential

One such policy (absolutely essential to help maximize returns) is the sampling of 100% of a spent PGM-bearing catalyst lot vs. sampling a representative quantity only. Ideally, a continuous catalyst sampling system (Figure 2) that produces consistent, reproducible, statistically valid samples should be located at the refiner’s facility.

The system should generate samples that represent—as accurately as possible—multiton lots of spent catalysts which are typical for hydrocarbon and petrochemical plants. Even specialized equipment for capturing dust should be available for subsequent sampling of remaining dust from this process. The sampling system should generate individual lot samples for the catalyst owner, the refiner, an umpire (a mediator to settle disputes), and reserve samples.

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Figure 2: Atomic absorption & ICP emission spectroscopy.

The refiner should also permit the catalyst owner or its representative to observe the sampling process at all times. Once sampling procedures are completed, representative samples must be assayed to measure their precious metals content. Precious metals refiners must perform assays with state-of-the-art laboratory instruments and procedures in order to achieve the highest possible level of accuracy. Typical assaying equipment and techniques include atomic absorption spectroscopy and inductively coupled plasma (ICP) emission spectroscopy (Figure 3), x-ray fluorescence, and volumetric, gravimetric, and fire assay techniques. Determination as to which combination of equipment and techniques to be used is based upon the types of materials being assayed.

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Figure 3: Continuous sampling is essential to help maximize returns.

Many organizations recover and refine PGMs and other precious metals from spent catalysts. While they all essentially perform the same function, it is important to be aware of some considerable differences between them, as these can have a significant impact on returns and, critically, affect the risk of litigation through exposure to local or foreign environmental and regulatory governing authorities. Therefore, it is in the catalyst owner’s best interest to learn as much as possible about the precious metals refiner under consideration. For example, information regarding how the refiner processes spent catalysts and what equipment and procedures it uses should be on hand. Particular areas of interest include the refiner’s process contamination removal methods, material sampling and assaying methods, environmental protection policies and procedures; compliance with international trade and logistics policies; and (perhaps most important) the refiner’s reputation with its long term customers. All of these issues and more will have an impact on the relationship established with the precious metal refiner.

As a refining, petrochemical or chemical processor, determining which precious metals refiner might best serve their interests isn’t complex. Following the rules and adhering to fundamental logic with regard to a refiner’s policies and procedures would serve them well to start. Other than the obvious issues of how, where, and when their materials will be processed, it’s always wise to seek out other refiners’ customers for candid opinions as well.