Precious metals recycling innovation reaches Africa Prize finals

Making money from scrap metal.

An innovation that uses a cheap and sustainable recycling method to recover precious metals has made it into the finals of the 2018 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

Growing demand for platinum, palladium and rhodium made Collins Saguru decide to commercialise a metal recycling process he developed while doing his master’s degree in metallurgy and material engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Zimbabwean chemical engineer Collins Saguru, who lives and works in South Africa, developed AltMet, a process that recovers the precious metals found in the autocatalytic converters of all petrol and diesel vehicles.

Autocatalytic converters, which contain platinum, palladium and rhodium, reduce the toxicity of vehicle gas emissions. Existing recycling methods require high temperatures and, consequently, a lot of energy.

His process is a game-changer because it allows the recycling of the metals at a much lower temperature than the pyro-metallurgical processes that currently dominate the recycling industry, making it far more cost-effective.

Starting his own recycling company, AltMet, made business sense, as recycled platinum group metals contribute a growing share to overall global supply, Saguru explains.

And while South Africa provides more than 70% of primary mined platinum supply, its contribution to overall supply is about 55%, with recycled metals contributing the rest, according to PwC data.

Most of this recycling takes place overseas, Saguru says.

Saguru dismantles used autocatalytic converters, crushes and leaches them before extracting the platinum-group metals, using much lower temperatures than current recycling methods.

This means the process is more affordable and emits fewer toxic gases. The chemical reagents used by AltMet are cheap, relatively common and environment-friendly. Saguru is in negotiations with local partners to set up a comprehensive pilot project in the near future.

“Recycling is not only cheaper, but much more environmentally friendly than mining these metals,” says Saguru.

“Just a kilogram of platinum from mining, for example, can produce anything between 20 and 40 tons of carbon dioxide. Platinum produced from recycled materials, however, has been found to represent only 1% of the environmental footprint of mined metals.”

His plan is to secure waste metal from various sources, such as scrap junctions and scrap yards, and to then supply the recycled material to existing companies that already have access to the international market.

They would need at least R6 million to fully commercialise their process.

Securing funding has turned into one of the company’s biggest challenges. Saguru explains that he is a Zimbabwean, who moved to SA to do a master’s degree.

“Because I am a foreigner, I do not qualify for probably close to 70% of the start-up funding available to small businesses in SA. It does not matter that my company will create thousands of downstream jobs by breathing new life into the manufacturing and mining sectors.”

The four finalists were due to pitch their innovations to a panel of judges and a live audience in Nairobi, Kenya. The winner will be announced at the event and will receive £25 000, while the runners-up will each receive £10 000 in prize money.

Meanwhile, entries are also now open for the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. Individuals and small teams living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, and who have an engineering innovation, are invited to enter.