Outer Space mining for PGMs? Will platinum group metals (PGMs) soon be mined in space? Some very influential people seem to think so. MJ Morgan investigates this and the other more-terrestrial developments his round-up of the sector.

Author:Morgan, MJ
Position::COMMODITIES
 
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Whilst the platinum industry is dominated by South Africa, where around 75% of output originates, an unorthodox and unlikely rival may be on the horizon. In what sounds more like an April Fool's story, Seattle-based Planetary Resources plans to mine 'near earth asteroids' (NEAs) for platinum group metals. The company claims that 1,500 of these NEAs are "easier to reach than the moon", although how six moon landings between 1969 and 1972 lasting a total of less than go minutes at a cost of billions - if not trillions - of dollars can be described as "easy" is not explained.

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It's probably a little early for South Africa's miners to get too panicky, however. The legality of property rights in space, the prodigious costs of space mining, the amount of time missions may take and the unproven nature of the technology mean failure is all too likely. It cannot be described other than as a very high risk investment.

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This has apparently not deterred the Google founders, Ross Perot and film director James Cameron from investing. With each of the 5oom NEA containing more PGMs than have ever been mined on earth in human history, the company says, the rewards are apparently there.

Meanwhile, in the real world, it remains South Africa that the world looks to for its PGMs. For one thing, the country possesses sufficient proven reserves to last about 300 years, making poking around in space for it as unnecessary as it is expensive.

Platinum surplus

According to the experts at Thomson Reuters GFMS, platinum supply rose 5% last year, mainly due to improved Canadian output and greater scrap volumes - particularly in Japan.

Platinum supply exceeded demand again last year, as it did in 2010, but the surplus fell by 12% to 735,000 oz. Demand for fabrication, as opposed to investment, rose 7% to a three year high, most notably due to Chinese jewellery demand.

Philip Klapwijk, Global Head of Metals Analytics at the firm, says "the fact that platinum prices remained elevated over much of last year - enabling a new all-time high in annual average terms of $1,722 - was testament to broadly favourable investor sentiment, evidenced by a 12% rise in world investment demand."

In South Africa, the story is one of stalling prices - currently at $1,500/oz, around 14% lower than last year's average - and production stoppages. The latter have been caused by the contentious Section 54 safety regulation. PGM mining is very dangerous...

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