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South Africa is home to the world’s largest PGM and chrome resources

With its rich mineral wealth, South Africa hosts approximately 80% of the world’s PGM and 70% of its chrome resources.

These industries have benefitted from significant investment, increased employment, and community upliftment. In contrast, the country benefits from economic contribution, both directly and indirectly, through the multiplier effect, also known as shared value contribution, foreign revenue generation and resulting taxes, including significant royalty payments, as the companies involved in the sustainable extraction of these resources continue to invest.

South Africa’s mining industry remains essential to the global commodity supply chain, with a particular emphasis on the PGM and chrome sectors, without which major global industries could not deliver.

PGMs – what a difference a year makes

PGM price chart

PGM price chart

Despite the concentration of production and the complexity of extracting PGMs – South Africa is responsible for roughly 75% of refined platinum production and 80% of rhodium – which should ensure pricing determined by factual supply demand fundamentals, the price movements were dominated by continued pricing pressure with the uncertainty of the macro-global economic outlook having a direct effect on the demand for the precious metals. This is overlain by further indecisiveness on the future of the internal combustion engine (ICE). During the latter half of FY2023, with the steep decline in PGM prices, analysts have cautioned that higher-cost producers within the PGM industry are not profitable at these commodity prices. The ‘higher for longer’ concerns of the global interest rate market have impacted prices for now, and we see a muted upside in the short term for PGM prices. In the medium to longer-term demand drivers, including continued ICE demand, battery electric vehicles and hybrid engines together with the hydrogen economy, possible supply cuts at unprofitable PGM producers, project delays and capital discipline versus demand for the ICE, will require a recovery in PGM prices to ensure demand is met by supply.

The platinum group metals (PGMs) comprise six elements: platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and osmium. These metals have high melting points, high heat resistance, high resistance, and unique catalytic properties, meaning they have a myriad of applications, particularly industrial ones, most notably automobile exhaust catalysts.

Gaining more and more scientific and real-world application, with capital being promoted for this new type of application, the hydrogen economy has gained significantly more prominence. PGMs will play a vital role in furthering this opportunity for using PGMs in various applications, such as fuel cells for mobility and electricity generation.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell — like a battery — to produce electricity, water and small amounts of heat. Oxygen is readily available in the atmosphere, hydrogen being the most abundant element in the world, so both are available to supply the fuel cell with hydrogen. There are several ways to produce even more hydrogen from water electrolysis. Solar or wind energy, both renewable fossil-free energy sources, create hydrogen fuel cell power entirely carbon emission-free.

The average basket price of US$1 893/oz (FY2022: US$2 564/oz) for the year retreated by 26.2% following a decline of 16.1% in the prior year, having a massive impact on the higher-cost primary PGM producers and thus a distinct possibility of a reduction in supply due to lack of available capital for future investment. This possibility remains real even as the exchange rate assisted somewhat in shielding the industry from the rapid price decline over the past 24 months. For FY2021, the average exchange rate against the US dollar was 14.8 while the average exchange rate for FY2022 was 15.8, weakening significantly in FY2023 at 18.2. This means that the price received in ZAR, while still down on an annualised basis, was weaker by only 15.2%, achieving an average of ZAR34 107/oz compared to a higher price of ZAR40 437 in FY2022.

Chrome market – the engine that drove our co-product model

The chrome market showed its ongoing resilience as solid demand meant prices averaged well above those in previous years. Reduced port inventory in China highlights the tight market balance underpinned by the growth in the Chinese domestic ferrochrome and stainless steel industries. Supply chain complexities are exacerbated by constrained rail and port logistics in South Africa and the effect of erratic electricity supply from Eskom. In addition, there have been no major primary output increases in the local market due to the lack of available resources and power constraints for smaller producers unable to access standby power. The chrome market looks set to consolidate its strong pricing in the coming year, particularly as new furnace commissioning continues to draw on material demand.

South Africa hosts thelargest chromite reserves in the world, with annual production measured both in local sales and export sales, making up two-thirds of the world’s total production. China imported approximately 90% of South Africa’s exports. Indonesia remains an essential player in the downstream chrome industry, with Tharisa supplying some of Indonesia’s most modern and largest mills.

Chrome prices and sales were flat year on year, with Tharisa’s output at 1.58 Mt, with an average metallurgical price received of US$263/t, an increase of 25.8% compared to US$209/t in FY2022.

Tharisa remains a major player in the global chrome industry, supplying approximately 10% to 12% of China’s annual demand for the metal.

Tharisa remains a significant player in the specialty chrome market, with roughly a quarter of the average annual chrome output delivered into these markets. The prices of these products (chemical and foundry chrome) attract a premium over metallurgical grade chrome ore.

Chrome price
(US$/t)

Chrome price

China chrome imports and chrome stocks
(kt)

China chrome imports and chrome stocks
Annual average
2019   160.73
2020   139.33
2021   156.43
2022   223.91
2023   276.37

 

Uses of chrome concentrates

Uses of chrome concentrates image

Chrome-end uses

Chrome ore demand is driven by ferrochrome use, with more than 90% of chrome ore being used for metallurgical purposes. Approximately 4% of demand is derived from the chemical industry and the balance from the foundry and refractory industries. The majority of metallurgical grade chrome concentrate is utilised in the production of ferrochrome. In turn, the largest consumer of ferrochrome is stainless steel. As such, the dynamics in the stainless- steel industry impact the ferrochrome and chrome ore industries.

To produce one tonne of stainless steel requires:


    Year ended
30 September
2023
Year ended
30 September
2022
Year on year
movement
%
Average PGM contained metal basket price US$/oz 1 893 2 564 (26.2)
Platinum price US$/oz 981 968 1.3 
Palladium price US$/oz 1 594 2 107 (24.3)
Rhodium price US$/oz 8 992 14 962 (39.9)
Average PGM contained metal basket price ZAR/oz 34 107 40 437 (15.7)
Average metallurgical grade chrome concentrate contract price – 42% basis US$/t 263 209 25.8 
Metallurgical grade chrome concentrate contract price ZAR/t CIF China 4 840 3 345 44.7 
Average exchange rate ZAR:US$ 18.2 15.8 15.2  
  Weekly PGM and Chrome info