Workers file toward the Anglo American Platinum smelter in Rustenburg, South Africa. - Screencapture Via SABC

Workers file toward the Anglo American Platinum smelter in Rustenburg, South Africa.

Screencapture Via SABC

A February 10 explosion at a smelter in Rustenburg, South Africa, has forced Anglo American Platinum, responsible for nearly 40% of the world’s annual supply of platinum, to declare force majeure.

Force majeure is a common clause in contracts that suspends, if only temporarily, both parties from liability when extraordinary circumstances make it impossible to fulfill the obligation of that contract.

The company declared force majeure “to customers, suppliers of third-party purchase of concentrate and suppliers of tolling material, as we are unable to complete the processing of material” pending the repair of the smelter, a press release states.

Anglo American Platinum, the only major metals producer concentrating solely on platinum metals, traces its origins to the discovery of large deposits of platinum bearing ore in South Africa’s Transvaal region.

Other than expensive jewelry, platinum is used in industry processes to make catalytic converters, fertilizers and the strengthened glass used in mobile telephones.

Extraction and refining of platinum group metals – platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium and osmium – involves a complex cycle of smelting, electrolytic and chemical operations.

The fire hit the company at a bottleneck in its production. Anglo American’s complex at Rustenburg is a combination mining operation and smelter. A first step in refining the metal is converting the platinum ore to a nickel-rich slag or matte that is further processed at other locations.

The February 10 explosion happened in the converter furnace that makes that initial process possible, the company’s press release explains. No injuries were reported in that incident.

In the process of pressing a backup converter into service it was discovered that water was somehow entering that furnace. Despite extensive testing to locate and isolate the source water continues to be found.

“This poses a high risk of explosion and the company has determined that it has no option but to temporarily shut down the phase B unit, to ensure the safety of all employees, and avoid a catastrophic event,” the press release states.

Work to repair the phase A unit damaged in the original explosion is not expected to be completed before the second quarter of 2021. In the meantime, Anglo American announced a deal with gold producer Sibanye-Stillwater to process its platinum group metals mined at Rustenburg and other locations.