From Scrap to Supply Chain: How BR Metals is Redefining the PGM IndustryBy SBMA
Frank Chen is the founder and managing director of BR Metals Pte Ltd. Under his leadership, the company has become a leader in the management and conservation of non-renewable precious metals from recycled scrap sources, expanding its regional presence in Singapore, China, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. BR Metals also clinched the top spot in 2022’s Enterprise 50 Awards.
Crucible caught up with Frank to hear more about his entrepreneurial journey in the precious metals space, his outlook for the industry and plans for the company.
I co-founded BR Metals with a Chinese partner in 2009 in Guangzhou after recognising an opportunity in extracting and recycling platinum group metals (PGM), such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium from discarded catalytic converters. With the vast Chinese market, we wanted to make recycling a viable alternative to PGM mining. Recovering PGM from discarded catalytic converters could result in up to 2,000 times more precious metals than mining from the ground. Since 2019, we have recovered an estimated 3 tonnes of PGM annually from end-of-life automotive catalytic converters, diesel particulate filters, and spent catalysts.
Our main goal when founding BR Metals was to find a sustainable and viable alternative to precious metal mining while contributing positively to the environment and society. Our company promotes responsible consumption and production and creates a circular economy by recovering PGM from end-of-life metal scraps and reintroducing them into the supply chain. By doing so, we meet the high demand for PGM sustainably while reducing the detrimental impacts of PGM mining on the environment and communities.
In 2020, we diversified our recycling service to recover gold and silver from different waste streams and forms, including industrial, manufacturing, and e-waste. In 2022, our Guangdong operations were granted a patent for the analysis of electric vehicle (EV) batteries, the first step towards EV battery recycling.
BR Metals currently operates two bulk semi-automated sampling lines, full analysis laboratories in Singapore and Guangdong, a processing plant in Malaysia, and representative offices in Cambodia and Thailand. Our contribution to the PGM global supply chain has been acknowledged by the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI), and Enterprise Singapore.
BR Metals has an extensive supplier network, spanning countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania, where we collect spent catalytic converters and other PGM scraps. For gold and silver recycling, our key markets are Singapore and Malaysia.
Due to market and consumer trend changes, BR Metals is diversifying into other industry segments such as recycling industrial sludge, jewellery scraps and e-waste to recover gold, silver and other precious metals. Supplying recycled gold to the jewellery market and other industry segments is what we are working towards at this moment. In 2021, the company collected 30,000 troy ounces of gold and silver for recycling
Additionally, we will also be expanding upstream opportunities, honing our competitive edge and then capturing downstream opportunities for both PGM and gold recycling. For the former, we will strengthen our foothold in our main markets with local offices and processing plants to get closer to the customers, save costs and improve go-to-market timing to minimise price exposure. Towards this end, we set up Malaysia sales and processing facility in 2021, a new representative office in Thailand and two upcoming facility and office in Tunisia and Vietnam.
To better capture downstream growth opportunities, the company has invested US$4 million to develop and build a pre-treatment PGM facility in Renhua, Guangdong, China. The new facility will have the capacity to process 1500 tonnes of spent catalytic converters, 1,000 tonnes of spent petrochemical catalysts, 3,000 tonnes of spent assets containing silver, PGM, and 3,000 tonnes of spent batteries. This will give us better control over the entire recovery process, increase cost savings and enhance our competitive edge in an increasing volatile market with a projected revenue growth of RMB1.8 billion for the Chinese operations in 2025.
The decision to open the Singapore office in 2014 was largely due to changes in China’s regulatory environment. In 2013, China reclassified catalytic converters as hazardous waste, causing an increase in the price of PGM. Along with a growing Southeast Asian clientele, this made it financially feasible for us to finally open a facility in Singapore.
Compared to China, Singapore has a more transparent and stable regulatory environment for urban waste management. The National Environment Agency (NEA) consults with licensed waste management companies on policy changes and directions before implementation, allowing for ample time to plan ahead and make operational adjustments accordingly.
The pro-business environment in Singapore is a huge benefit, with the government supporting local businesses in developing new capabilities, innovations, and business transformations to stay competitive in current and future markets. Over the years, we have tapped into various grants to develop our capabilities and enhance our productivity. One recent example is the set-up of our e-waste analysis lab, partial automation of our auto catalyst sampling system, and development of an HRM talent retention framework. We have also benefited immensely from tax breaks throughout different growth stages.
Singapore also has a thriving ecosystem, where companies can work with local universities to develop new technology and connect with thought leaders in their industries. For the last two years, we have been working with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) to develop a new methodology for analysis of PGM in catalytic converters, which was completed in October last year.
SBMA is a well-recognised and respected trade association in the region. Being a member of this organization provides us with credibility in the regional gold market, and we hope to leverage SBMA’s reputation and resources to raise our brand awareness while contributing to the growth of the precious metals market in Singapore.
We are optimistic about our growth prospects despite the macro environment and plan to direct more resources towards developing our gold recovery capabilities and technology in Singapore and Malaysia. The company intends to achieve this by developing proprietary technology and building on what is already available in the market.
Since the soft launch of our gold and silver recovery solution in late 2020, BR Metals has been able to collect more than 200 kilograms of gold and silver each month for recycling, indicating that there is still a significant growth opportunity in this market vertical.
Our PGM-related business remains strong, as we currently reclaim about 80,000 troy ounces of PGMs every year. We plan to expand our market share by capturing more upstream opportunities, approaching customers directly, and consolidating our foothold in existing markets.
Innovation and automation are key differentiators for us, setting us apart from ordinary waste recycling companies. BR Metals’ heavy investment in automation has played a significant role in our success, enabling us to streamline processes, increase accuracy, and achieve greater price transparency and cost efficiency. For instance, our use of robots to carry out the sampling process has reduced the error rate by tenfold.
To maintain our position as an industry leader, we make substantial investments in sophisticated sampling and laboratory analysis equipment. Additionally, we have developed a proprietary method for assessing the precious metals content of catalytic converter monoliths using XRF technology, which is cheaper and faster than most competitors’ methods. The company has also invested in laboratories to study the ideal amount of chemicals to use in our testing and partnered with SIT to develop more efficient PGM analysis methods.
We are committed to developing sustainable gold and silver analysis and recovery capabilities for different waste streams and forms, enabling us to offer one-stop spent asset management solutions for customers across various industry sectors. This effort will create new jobs in business development, processing, sampling facilities, and laboratories for Singaporeans. In Malaysia, we will set up a new gold and silver recovery system that utilizes innovative analysis and recovery techniques, minimizing the use of environmentally harmful chemicals.
To safeguard our innovations, our operations in Shaoguan have secured six patents from the China National Intellectual Property Administration for our automated sampling line and lab analysis process. This patented technology allows for greater efficiency, improved speed, and reduced waste compared to conventional sampling lines. Moreover, our laboratory in Guangzhou has obtained a new patent for a laboratory automatic acid digestion system that automates tedious manual work in the analysis process.
Companies in the commodity industry tend to have difficulty gaining a convincing Unique Selling Proposition. That’s why there’s a need for us to constantly invest in better machinery, develop better analysis methodology and sampling technology to get a technical edge over the competition.
Our patented technology also allows greater efficiency, improved speed and less wastage compared to conventional sampling lines. Other fundamentals that have contributed to our growth in the last few years include service differentiation as well as a strong reputation for integrity, fairness and reliability, which our brand audit uncovered. I believe this has helped us achieve a 95% customer retention rate year-on-year.
Our sound financial standing also enables us to buy spent materials from customers regardless of market conditions, as opposed to others which tend to buy in excess when prices are high and stop when prices are low. This strategy allows us to refrain from engaging in price competition and instead to focus on consistently paying the right price to suppliers. By doing so, we have not only gained a reputation as a reliable business partner but also removed ourselves from the ongoing price wars, and steadily grow our bottom line.
The high prices of PGM over the last three years also contributed considerably to our revenue growth but we are prepared for a bear market ahead by diversifying into gold and silver recovery. We will continue to develop our gold and silver capabilities to take on waste of different forms and from different sources. Hopefully, we can expand our market share by expanding our network and raise our brand awareness by working closely with SBMA.
As with PGM recycling, we strive towards reducing the potentially destructive impact of mining activities by recovering gold and silver from recycled scrap sources, and bring a new lease of life to these finite resources that were otherwise discarded.
Even as our business strategies are constantly reviewed and modified, BR Metals is sure of one thing: sustainability and transparency will always be at the core of our business. Looking ahead, BR Metals aims to be at the forefront of responsible production and consumption in every aspect of our business operations including service offerings, new market development, processing and even CRS planning.
Our goals remain the same as from the very beginning: BR Metals is committed to offering a viable alternative to precious metal mining and to build a company that operates sustainably and gives back to the environment and society. The difference will lie in the scope, breadth and depth of our recycling service.
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