20 CRITICAL TRADE ROUTES
9. Polokwane, South Africa
How one colossal smelter put its foot on the future of platinum
On the plains around Pietersburg, a city in South Africa's Limpopo province, a colossal red and white chimney rises out of the scrubland. It is an unmissable signpost for Polokwane, the world's biggest platinum smelter. Arriving on the N1 highway, which runs from Cape Town to Zimbabwe, trucks pull up, dropping off platinum concentrate, a dark grey powder that is fed into the world's largest robotic laboratory. Inside, a giant robotic arm never stops moving, mixing and heating samples in a cocktail of chemicals, before dividing the powder into silos. It is then blasted with gas at 700 degrees, then pneumatically pushed through pipes and bins, finally disappearing through flap valves into one of the world's hottest furnaces. Owned by Anglo American, and with more than double the capacity of its nearest competitor, Polokwane is seen in the industry as a “mega-scale furnace.” Others regularly blow-up because of a build-up of chrome, which causes temperatures to run out of control, but Polokwane is too hot for the chrome to settle and has been explosion-free for a decade. The liquid metal is poured into ingots, then crushed into a high-grade powder, which is refined and sold directly to buyers in the car industry, going into exhausts and hydrogen fuel cell technology. Opened in 2003, Polokwane sits on top of the Bushveld, the world's biggest platinum deposit. Mining first focused on the Bushveld's western limb, where grades are high and mines are deep, but as companies build larger, mechanised operations, investment is shifting to the northern and eastern limbs, where Polokwane is the only large smelter. With more capacity than Anglo can utilise, it currently takes tonnage from other companies, but as Anglo escalates output at its own flagship mechanised mine, Mogalakwena, which has the biggest trucks in Africa and the lowest costs per ounce in platinum, space at Polokwane is limited. That creates a tightening bottleneck. For companies that can't get their tonnage into Polokwane’s furnace, there is always the highway. On the N1, it is a 330km drive to the western limb, where the industry's older furnaces are sitting (that’s roughly equal to the distance between London and Brussels).
It can take more than half an hour to melt precious metals in a furnace, but temperatures at Polokwane are so high that it turns concentrate powder into liquid metal in 10 minutes
Polokwane is the biggest smelter in Anglo American, which produces 74 tonnes of platinum per annum from seven mines, equal to 37 per cent of the global market
At current prices, Anglo’s platinum output is worth $2.2bn per annum. Adding byproducts including nickel and palladium, which is close to a record high, and revenue jumps to $5bn