S&P Global Platts is reporting that Iridium prices have surged nearly three-fold since December to reach its all-time high of $4,800/oz, buoyed by strong demand, supply concerns, and the move towards 5G technology.
Iridium price scales new high
PGM refiner Johnson Matthey reported that its iridium base prices climbed 9% to reach $4,800/oz on Feb. 23, while Engelhard Materials Services (BASF) of Germany reported that its price stood at $4,800/oz.
The Platts New York Dealer iridium price surged from $4,000-$4,750/oz during Feb. 12-18 period to $4,200-$4,800/oz for the Feb. 19-25 period.
Significance of OPMs
Also known as other precious metals (OPMs), iridium, rhodium, and ruthenium are by-products of PGM mining. Nearly 7-8 mt of iridium is produced on a yearly basis, while around 35-40 mt of ruthenium is produced in a year, including recycling. The total rhodium primary supply and recycling accounts for around 30 mt of the metal each year.
Iridium is a critical element in several niche products like the temperature resistant crucibles needed for making synthetic crystals for electronics and telecommunications systems (5G tech), high-performance spark plugs, medical devices, and navel ballast systems. Ruthenium is used to make computer hard disk drives and electrical contacts and is also used as a chemical catalyst.
Tight supply, high demand
The surge in demand for iridium was driven by crucibles and the need for those to grow the lithium tantalate crystals for 5G technology.
Karolina Jackiewicz of Lipmann Walton & Co. noted: “The main usage is in the production of crucibles for the SAW [surface acoustic wave] filters for growing of the lithium tantalate crystals for 5G. This demand will be increasingly important as we move towards 5G and other new technologies.”
Supply disruptions due to Covid-19
COVID-19 severely disrupted South African supply in 2020, resulting in a shortage in inventories. South Africa accounts for 81% of global mine production of iridium and 90% of ruthenium supply.
Ties to green hydrogen
According to several market sources, there has also been an increase in demand for iridium and ruthenium due to their link with the green hydrogen economy.
Hydrogen currently produced in the market is mainly made through the methane steam reforming process which generates CO2 as a by-product. With countries striving for CO2 neutrality, there is an increased interest in the production of green hydrogen via water electrolysis using iridium and ruthenium.
Jackiewicz commented: “Green hydrogen production via water electrolysis with iridium and ruthenium is currently a very small market. “That’s something that might become more significant in the long-term, in the next five to 10 years.”