Implats to restart idled third furnace

November 4, 2015, 4:50am

Mining for platinum. Photo by Reuters

By Allan Seccombe, Business Day Live

IMPALA Platinum (Implats), the world’s second-largest platinum miner, will commission an idled furnace this month, giving it extra capacity for greater flexibility in handling its own concentrate as well as offering toll refining to third parties.

Once the furnace refurbishment, which started in July, is completed at the end of this month, Implats will have a set of two 35MW furnaces and one 30MW furnace. Implats has operated just two furnaces for the past three years to save costs.

"With our Rustenburg mines ramping up and Zimplats back at full production, combined with our improved ability to manage constrained power with three furnaces, it makes sense to start the third furnace again," said Johan Theron, group executive of corporate relations.

This will give Implats capacity to produce up to 2.5-million platinum ounces a year, which is 1-million ounces higher than its production target of between 1.45-million ounces and 1.5-million ounces for its 2016 financial year to end-June.

The furnaces will not be run "flat out, but at about 60%", said Mr Theron, adding the company’s concentrators could be tweaked to deliver more metal to the furnaces.

This would give Implats operational redundancy to absorb maintenance of a furnace by diverting material to the other two without disrupting metal flows, he said.

It also positions Implats for any toll refining from new mines starting up as and when platinum group metal prices recover and smaller companies advance their projects.

One potential source of metal would be from Ivanhoe Platinum or others on the northern limb of the Bushveld Igneous Complex, assuming new mines are built on what is essentially a base metal deposit with platinum group metal by-products.

The northern limb concentrate would be similar to that coming from Zimbabwe, rich in base metals and consuming a lot of capacity in the furnace relative to the concentrate coming from the UG2 and Merensky reefs mined by Implats.

It would also cost more than the industry average of 15% of contained metal that is paid for toll refining concentrate from those two reefs. The furnaces extract iron and silica before the matte is sent to a base metal refinery and then a precious metal refinery for processing into a saleable product.

Northam Platinum has opted to build a 20MW furnace for R750m to complement the furnace at its smelting complex at its Zondereinde mine, south of Thabazimbi, raising its processing capacity to more than 1-million ounces of platinum group metals from the end of 2017.

Between now and the end of 2017, as Northam lifts production from its Booysendal tenement, Implats could toll refine extra concentrate from the company as it carries out construction on its second furnace.

While Northam will have capacity for offering toll refining to third parties, the size of Implats’ smelting operations may give it a cost efficiency advantage over its smaller peer.

Implats, which until fairly recently processed metal coming from recycled autocatalyst systems in vehicle exhausts, could possibly in the future resume treating this material.

Any increases in production from Implats’ 80%-owned Zimplats mines in Zimbabwe, as well as from the Mimosa mine it shares with Aquarius Platinum in that country, could be easily accommodated with the expanded furnace capacity.

The platinum miners in Zimbabwe, including Anglo American Platinum’s Unki mine, are studying options to smelt their concentrate to comply with government demands for greater beneficiation in Zimbabwe or face hefty tax penalties.