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Umicore: why predicting PGM levels in autocats is difficult

Umicore is ‘confident’ that there will be a healthy market for autocatalyst recyclers – at least for the foreseeable future.  The recycler recovers nickel and cobalt from the batteries of hybrid and electric vehicles while recovering platinum group metals from various types of catalytic converters at its hi-tech site in Hoboken, Belgium.

‘E-mobility is influencing recycling practices around the world but, at the moment, the waste stream is marginal,’ comments Thierry Kerckhoven, head of supply recyclables, Umicore Precious Metals Refining. Compared to recycling autocatalysts, he points out, processing e-scrap is a lot more work and offers much lower pay-offs. 

Computers on wheels

PGMs may be present in circuit boards but only in very small concentrations. ‘This was different 20 or even just ten years ago. Gradually, producers have started using less palladium, often by substituting it with metals like nickel – which is a much cheaper metal, after all,’ Van Kerckhoven explains.

At the same time, today’s cars have become ‘computers on wheels’. The increasing number of electronics being incorporated into vehicles means that the volume of gold, silver and other precious metals being recovered from circuit boards will go up.

No fixed value

On the whole, PGMs are virtually interchangeable. Carmakers are well aware of this, heavily favouring lower-grade metal compositions in their exhaust systems. ‘As a result, it is pretty much impossible to tell whether a car contains a lot or barely any platinum or palladium,’ the precious metals specialist tells Recycling International.

‘An autocat could be 20 years old or salvaged from a brand-new car following an accident,’ Kerckhoven explains. ‘That’s why we do not offer a fixed price per unit, like a lot of other recyclers do.’ Instead, Umicore conducts an in-depth sampling analysis at its laboratory to determine the value of such these scrap products.

Expect new models

Engines with a diesel particulate filter do not have a honeycomb structure like traditional models, making them harder to recycle. ‘We already have the technology to process the diesel filters efficiently in-house,’ Van Kerckhoven points out. ‘In the recycling sector, products are always changing. You have to be ready when that moment comes.’

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