Automobile Recycling Harvests Platinum

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(Columbus, MT – YPR) – The world’s supply of the precious metals platinum and palladium comes from underground mines in Montana, Russia, Africa -- or from underneath your vehicle.

Platinum, Palladium and Rhodium (also known as Platinum Group Metals, or PGM) are used to manufacture catalytic converters, a pollution control device for internal combustion engines.

Stillwater Mining Company is one of the few operations in the world that can take automobile catalyst and extract the PGM.

Stillwater's VP Greg Roset outside of the company's smelter in Columbus, MT

“Because we mine Platinum Group Metals, we can do the recycling,” says Greg Roset, Vice President of Smelter and Recycling Operations.

Stillwater Mining Company operates the only U.S-based platinum and palladium mines in south central Montana. In the 1990’s the company began smelting and refining its ore in nearby Columbus, MT.

Prior to Stillwater’s entry into auto catalyst recycling in 1997, Roset says most of the recycling took place in Africa. He says there are also small furnaces that recycle in Texas, Alabama, and North Dakota.

He says there are many reasons why it makes sense to Stillwater to reclaim PGM. “It’s an opportunity to improve some employment in Montana,” he says. “But the driving force was economics. It gives us an opportunity to process those ounces here, keep them in the U.S., and make some money while we’re doing it.”

Stillwater has contracts to purchase automobile catalyst from customers from all over the world. Recently a delegation from China was touring the company’s metallurgical complex in Columbus.

Semis deliver to the smelter boxes and sacks what looks like garbage from the sweepings from someone’s garage.

“There’s probably not quite a ton, but that will be on the order of 60 ounces of platinum, palladium, rhodium right there,” says Roset. “That’s worth a lot of money. That’s over $70,000 worth of material right there.”

Automobile catalyst that's delivered to Stillwater's recycling facility

What someone can get to recycle an automobile’s catalytic converter varies widely, often dependent on what the precious metals are trading for on a particular day. On average, a person can expect from $60-500, depending on the year of its manufacture and type of vehicle.

Pacific Steel and Recycling has steel and scrap metal recycling offices across nine northwest and intermountain states. Manager Marshall Knick in Billings, MT, says when a car comes in for recycling, the catalytic converter is cut off, graded for quality, inventoried, and collected in a box for later shipment to Great Falls, MT, a central location -- “until we gather enough to fill a complete semi load and then sell that to the highest bidder.”

He says Montana has a law to prevent someone from cutting catalytic converters off of vehicles and then trying to sell it to shops, like Pacific Steel. “In the state of Montana any purchase of non-ferrous metals over $50 requires an ID and a license plate off the vehicle that brought it in. We try to deter that theft as much as possible. We don’t want to become a place of buying stolen materials.”

A close-up of the "honey comb" in a catalytic converter at Pacific Steel

Knick says because of the high value, collectors drive all over the country visiting muffler, recycling shops and junk yards looking for spent catalytic converters. Then that person or someone else has to cut open the container and scrape out the catalyst, being careful to save not only the chunks of honeycomb, but also the dust, because it contains PGM.

Stillwater’s Greg Roset says the amount of recovered platinum, palladium and rhodium from automobile catalyst is competitive with the company’s underground mine operation.

“The mine (near Nye, MT) produces somewhere around that 350,000 to 400,000 ounces per year; east Boulder (near McLeod, MT) hovers around the 150,000 to 175,000 ounces per year,” he says.  "Recycle has grown from 50,000 to we hope 450,000 to 500,000 ounces this year. So we actually process more ounces from recycle than we do from either of the mines.”

And Stillwater’s recycling extracts more than just PGM, says Dave Shuck, vice president of Stillwater’s Base Metal Refinery and Analytical Laboratory. He says by-products include copper plates, nickel, gypsum, and even the slag is used as fill for road construction.

Base Metal Refinery and Analytical Laboratory Vice President Dave Shuck holding up a sample of the PGM rich material Stillwater sends out for final refining

The most valuable product looks like fine black sand. This platinum, palladium, rhodium rich material is  sent out to another refiner for final purification.  The metals can then be manufactured into catalytic converters, electronics, or other uses.