New technology to produce platinum group metals (PGMs) will be rolled out in SA and Zimbabwe, answering a demand for greater beneficiation of these precious and industrial metals and unshackling junior miners from the major companies.
The Kell process is designed and developed by Keith Liddell, who has patented the technology that extracts PGMs as well as associated metals nickel and copper.
The Kell process came into the spotlight in March 2012 when SA’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) invested in a joint venture with Pallinghurst Resources and the Bakgatla Ba Kgafela community to revive the failed Platmin mining operations.
At the time of the IDC’s R4.3bn investment in the venture, Pallinghurst and the IDC said they would form another joint venture focused on beneficiation and that the Kell process would form the foundation of this venture.
Fast-forward five years and this vision has started nearing reality, with plans to roll out four Kell plants in Zimbabwe at a cost of between $90m and $100m each to produce 1.2-million ounces of the four platinum group elements, being platinum, palladium, gold and rhodium. It will help mining companies operating in Zimbabwe meet the government’s demands for a final metal to be produced in the country or face a hefty 15% penalty on the export of PGM-bearing concentrate for processing in SA. Each plant would generate 300,000oz of PGMs a year. Four similar-sized plants are envisioned for SA.
In terms of the nascent agreement, the Zimbabwean government would own 51% of the beneficiation joint venture. Pallinghurst’s platinum mining subsidiary, Sedibelo; the IDC; and Liddell’s company Lifezone, the exclusive holder of the Kell patent, would hold 49%.
"It’s very early days, but it could be very interesting.
"It’s the right thing for Zimbabwe," says Pallinghurst CEO Arne Frandsen.
The venture will build a show plant first and then, over five years, complete all four plants to "take all the concentrate produced in Zimbabwe". The agreement with the Zimbabwean government is at a memorandum of understanding level, with talks on a final contract under way.
"This will find a lot of support from existing producers in Zimbabwe," Frandsen said, pointing out the 15% tax would kick in next January and plans were afoot to ban exports of PGM-bearing concentrate.
"We’ve not forgotten SA. We will also roll out plants here. It’s really a new technology that will transform the way we beneficiate PGM concentrates," he says.
The plant has been tested internally, with pilot plants handling concentrate from Zimbabwe and the three limbs that make up the South African PGM deposits. It proved to have relatively low electricity consumption compared with conventional smelting and refining complexes. It also showed it could process concentrate with high chrome levels, which is something existing plants struggle to handle effectively.
The technology has won the backing of Pallinghurst chairman Brian Gilbertson. As a typical mining executive, he was extremely wary of using new technology that was unproven by a long run at an operational mine. Gilbertson has given his support for Kell to be used at the Sedibelo mine.
Construction of the plants will start in May and will take up to 18 months.