Strategic metals: Exploring and processing platinum group elements

Our research and analysis is improving the exploration of new Platinum Group Elements (PGE) deposits and developing more efficient processing of PGE ores.

Mining machinery working in open-pit PGE mine on the Platreef
Open-pit PGE mining on the Platreef (Mogalakwena mine, operated by Anglo Platinum)

PGEs are critical metals because of their unrivalled applications in catalysts, fuel cells and electronics and cancer therapies.

Understanding the fundamental controls on mineralization and locating the host phases that control the distribution of the PGE in ores, are crucial factors for companies carrying out exploration and mineral processing of PGE.

Prichard's research at Sudbury since 2009 has been described as part of a number of "landmark contributions to the science of nickel deposits"

Peter Lightfoot Chief geologist of the mining company Vale

Improving exploration and processing

PGEs are among the rarest elements in the Earth's crust, with all current major world minable PGE resources occurring in mafic igneous rocks.

Experts in PGE studies, Doctors Prichard and McDonald, have used electron microscopy and laser ablation mass spectrometry techniques to measure trace PGE concentrations in sulphide minerals. Their work has been crucial in evaluating the economic potential of PGE mineral deposits, since the distribution of PGE between base metal sulphide (BMS) and platinum-group minerals (PGM) in the ore, strongly influences the type of ore processing and its cost.

In addition to characterizing ore and improving extraction efficiency at known deposits, our research has revealed new targets for PGE exploration. McDonald's work on the World's third largest PGE deposit, the Platreef, resulted in a fundamentally new exploration model and in 2011 this research won the Wardell Armstrong prize from the Institution of Materials, Minerals and Mining.

Giant impact craters have major exploration significance because all of the craters previously known in this size class are associated with multi-billion dollar mineral and hydrocarbon resources. The discovery of a new gint impact crater at Maniitsoq by McDonald and colleagues from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland is now being used by North American Nickel Incorporated, to help guide exploration for nickel and PGE at Maniitsoq.

A three billion year old discovery

Research between 2009 and 2012 resulted in the discovery of a three billion year old giant impact crater at Maniitsoq in West Greenland. It led directly an intellectual property transaction worth CDN$ 2.1 million and discovery of new nickel and PGE deposits in Greenland by North American Nickel Incorporated.

Industrial impacts

The combination of our specialist knowledge and analytical facilities enables the total distribution of PGE within ores, metallurgical products or other samples to be mapped and quantified; impacting both on exploration efficiency and reducing costs at deposits.

Examples of these industrial impacts include:

  • Collaboration with Anglo Platinum Ltd (McDonald), which resulted in the identification of staging chambers below the world's third largest PGE deposit (the Platreef) where highly PGE-rich sulphide liquids were concentrated
  • Collaboration with Rio Narcea Recursos S.A (Prichard), which increased value to their base metal mining product and provided support with smelter credits for precious metals in the ores
  • Collaboration with nickel company Vale, (Prichard), which improved their extraction efficiency of PGE from their ore
  • Development of the Maniitsoq impact model with mining consultants John Ferguson and John Rowntree (McDonald) lead to acquisition of the Maniitsoq project by North American Nickel Incorporated for CDN$ 2.1 million and a subsequent exploration investment exceeding CDN$ 20M.

Meet our experts

Mining machinery working in open-pit PGE mine on the Platreef

Dr Iain McDonald

Senior Lecturer

+44 (0)29 2087 4295