Pursuing automation and efficiency in the recycling of metals

BR Metals, a recycler of platinum-group metals, is mining value from scrap. It's also diversifying into recycling gold from waste produced by semiconductor manufacturers.

Yong Jun Yuan
Published Wed, Oct 27, 2021 · 05:50 AM

WHEN recycling platinum-group metals, one needs to think in microscopic terms.

These six metals - platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium and osmium - are used in a large number of products but typically in small quantities.

A recycler might extract a representative 50g sample from a tonne of ceramic scrap, then chemically extract and measure the mass of the rhodium, platinum and palladium in each sample down to 0.000001 part per million.

Speed and accuracy are key in this line of work, since the price of such metals is very high and the market can be quite volatile. Rhodium, for instance, has a spot price in the range of US$10,000 per ounce and a bid-ask spread of US$1,000.

The need for such precision has pushed BR Metals to invest more of its resources into automation and innovation, said founder Frank Chen.

The platinum-group metals recycling company has accumulated six patents since it began operations in 2009. These have contributed to the construction of its automated sampling line, which can grind up rough scrap material and produce a smooth, fine powder to be sampled.

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On the company's production line, the process of extracting ferrous metals is also automated.

"With automation, it saves us a lot of unnecessary loss, increases our timing efficiency and reduces errors and human intervention," Chen said. The company has also been able to cut down on its manpower requirements.

Innovating in a niche industry

When BR Metals first started out in the business of recycling platinum-group metals, its workers had to manually press buttons on each machine used in the process. They would listen for the right sounds to be made by the machine before deciding when to move on to the next step.

To overcome this difficulty, the company installed sensors to detect the flow of material between machines.

A programmable logic control and a human-machine interface were added to ensure the machines would stop when no material was detected. This was akin to giving the sampling line a brain to process information from the sensors and fingers to work the switches of different machines along the sampling line, Chen explained.

BR Metals also installed a pneumatic conveyor system that used differences in air pressure to suck material from one machine to another. And it had to fine-tune various controls to ensure that the various machines - made by different manufacturers - could communicate with each other.

These small improvements didn't come cheap, and they also took up time and effort. But they helped reduce manpower requirements.

"The cost of around a few hundred thousand dollars is irrelevant to the savings that we made," Chen said.

On the production line, workers were previously employed to manually remove metal fragments from the scrap processed.

Today, the process of extracting these ferrous metals is automated. And it is done without generating dust, which could contain platinum-group metal fragments that would otherwise be wasted.

Since these various improvements were put in place, only 3 to 4 people are now required to produce samples from 30 tonnes of material per month. Previously, it took 6 to 7 people to produce samples from 10 tonnes of material per month.

Rapid growth

The idea for a metals recycling business first took seed in Chen's mind in the early 2000s, while he was still an undergraduate at the Queensland University of Technology studying business management and marketing.

On a backpacking trip to Gansu province in China, Chen passed through the Silk Road and found a large nickel mine near the site that had torn up the landscape.

"It was a very pretty sight but... all the damage, it was saddening," he said.

It wasn't till some years later, however, that he hit upon a means of helping to reduce the need for metals mining.

It was in 2006, while doing a short stint as a business consultant at a Big Four accounting firm, that he saw an opportunity to make some headway in China's still-nascent metals recycling industry.

Little did he imagine how big of an opportunity it would turn out to be.

Between 2016 and 2020, BR Metals' revenue soared from US$4.8 million to US$130 million. In 2020, the company recovered 4 tonnes of platinum-group metals from 14 million catalytic converters.

Catalytic converters, used in vehicles to process toxic emissions, contain platinum, palladium and rhodium in their catalyst components.

A decision to move back to Singapore to expand the company's reach in 2014 has helped, he said. The company was previously in Guangdong province.

"Being a free port means that transport in and out (of Singapore) is a lot more efficient. There is less government red tape, so we began to actively source for scrap from Asean and beyond," he said, adding that his top 3 sources of scrap are Thailand, Malaysia and India, aside from the scrap that is processed locally at BR Metals' Chinese facility.

Chen said he is also thankful that several local banks were willing to support him during the early stages of his journey, when he needed liquidity to grow.

Unlike other traditional recycling businesses, which are paid to collect recyclables like plastics or glass, BR Metals had no such advantage. It had to pay to buy catalytic converters to get hold of raw materials.

"As an SME with our own money, we probably wouldn't have gotten so far," he said.

New opportunities

Chen is expecting business to keep growing as more vehicles are scrapped over the next few years.

The economic boom in China in the late 2000s caused vehicle numbers to grow significantly, he said, and those cars and lorries will be scrapped as their owners replace them in the next few years.

Chen has readied his plant in China to handle 3,000 tonnes of catalytic converters per year, double the 1,400 tonnes that the facility processed in 2020.

He also expects demand for platinum to rise as hybrid cars gain popularity among a more climate-conscious public.

These vehicles are more energy-efficient than their more traditional counterparts, but they also emit cooler tailpipe gases since their internal combustion engines (ICE) are smaller. The cooler tailpipe gases result in reduced efficiency of their catalytic converters, which in turn require more platinum-group metals to effectively break down the toxic nitrous oxides emitted.

At the same time, Chen is thinking about how BR Metals can evolve as fully electric vehicles (EVs) replace ICE vehicles.

Under the Singapore Green Plan, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) expects the cost of buying an EV and an ICE vehicle to be similar by the mid-2020s, with the end goal of phasing out ICE vehicles by 2040.

Chen hopes technical breakthroughs in hydrogen fuel cells will make them more viable than the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. This is because hydrogen fuel cells require platinum as a catalyst.

He noted that car manufacturers such as Toyota, as well as technology companies such as Nanofilm, have been working on overcoming the limitations of hydrogen fuel cells to make them commercially viable. Nanofilm is in a joint venture with Temasek to develop coatings that will improve the performance and reduce the cost of fuel cells.

Meanwhile, he is also diversifying into the recycling of gold. BR Metals is taking delivery of machinery for this purpose in November and will aim to begin production of so-called "green gold'' in the first quarter of next year.

The company has run small-scale trials with local semiconductor manufacturers to recycle gold from waste that they produce, with other sources of gold including electronic waste collected from SMEs as well.

He noted that SMEs face a problem when getting rid of sensitive hardware such as computer hard drives, as some unscrupulous vendors may refurbish the hardware and sell them. Since his profits are driven by the recycling of the precious metal, he believes that he can earn SMEs' trust.

Some high-end jewellers are also seeking to incorporate more recycled material in the products to serve climate-conscious customers, Chen said.

Indeed, the shift in consumer mindsets has been a boon for BR Metals. For Chen, the work is also much more meaningful: "If we do something to help the economy, to help the environment and create sustainable employment and recurring revenue. That is what wakes me up in the morning, it's what drives me forward."

  • This is the fifth in a 20-part Green Business series, in collaboration with UOB, exploring sustainability trends across businesses and industries.



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