Incredible platinum uses
Platinum week starts here in London on Monday, the key annual gathering of industry players and analysts, meeting in the platinum market's key global hub.
To mark this series of platinum industry meetings, seminars and events, BullionVault's latest infographic looks at the incredible uses of this unique and increasingly vital precious metal.
Heavier and more hard-wearing than gold, tiny quantities of platinum today help make anti-cancer drugs as well as the electrodes on your car's spark plugs.
Most dramatically, platinum's unique catalytic properties help create enough fertilizer to keep the world fed, as well as turning crude oil into gasoline and avaiation fuel, plus cleaning toxic exhaust emissions from diesel engines around the world.
Discover where this invaluable metal comes from, what it is used for, and how it supports key aspects of modern life in our new platinum infographic.
The biggest single use of platinum each year, automotive catalytic converters reduce toxic emissions from combustion engines. Over 41% of all platinum used in 2016 went to cut emissions in diesel autocats. The global push to reduce diesel emissions further will likely see platinum use grow. As the giant economies of China and India upgrade their regulations, adopting the Euro 5 standards and moving towards new Euro 6 rules, some analysts predict the global catalytic converter market could grow 47% in the 5 years to 2021 to a value over $55bn.
Platinum engagement rings, wedding bands, necklaces and bracelets account for over a third of the metal's use each year, almost as much as in autocats. Most popular in China, platinum jewellery is generally purer than its gold counterpart, because the metal is denser (21.5 grams per cubic centimetre versus 19.3 g/cm3) and more hard-wearing. An identically-shaped wedding ring made from platinum will weigh 40% more than that made of 18-carat gold. So although bullion platinum prices are currently cheaper than gold per ounce, this high purity adds to the retail price, as do the extra costs of working this significantly harder metal with its higher melting point (1758°C versus 1064°C).
Platinum's high melting point and resistance to abrasion or corrosion makes it ideal for handling very hot substances, most notably molten glass. Platinum tools are used both to channel the liquid and to create the hair-like strands making fibreglass, now used for everything from printed circuit boards to kayaks, home insulation to water-pipes in sewerage systems. “Fiberisation” is the term for extruding molten glass from a “bushing” – a platinum alloy container with tiny holes or jets for drawing out the fibres. Bushings are recycled once they are worn or have lost sufficient platinum to require replacement.
Without the synthetic fertilizers developed 100 years ago, the Earth could feed perhaps only half as many people as are alive today. Platinum catalysts are vital to making nitric acid, 90% of which goes to produce the 190 million tonnes of fertilizer nutrients used each year. The first stage of making nitric acid means oxidising ammonia gas with air to form nitric oxide. To achieve high conversion efficiencies above 95%, this is normally carried out at pressure over precious-metal catalyst gauzes made of platinum with one-tenth rhodium.
Platinum is vital to the world's supply of petroleum. Without it, oil refineries couldn't produce enough fuel to meet demand. Coated onto catalysts made from silica or alumina, platinum aids the chemical process of turning low-octane naphtha into gasoline, diesel, gasoil and jet-engine fuel, cracking large molecules of hydrocarbons into smaller, reformed structures. The developed-world's OECD economies get through 32 million barrels of these liquids per day.
Traditionally made with a copper electrode due to its superior conductivity, spark plugs using a harder element such as platinum are a popular choice for all but the highest-performance petrol engines. Because copper is one of the softest metals, platinum spark plugs can last roughly 50% longer, giving around 45,000 miles of driving. Each electrode is tiny; just 1 kilo of platinum could make enough for 46,000 spark plugs.
The least reactive of all metals, platinum and gold cause no irritation to human skin or flesh. But platinum is harder-wearing, making it best for the connections and wires in implants such as pacemakers, protecting against corrosion by acids inside the body. Estimates say more than 5 tonnes of platinum go into biomedical devices worldwide each year, around 80% for proven treatments (such as pacemakers and guidewires to fit catheters) and the rest in newer devices for neuromodulation (to help control pain and neurological dysfunction) and stents (mesh tubes to widen arteries and improve bloodflow).
Tiny quantities of platinum go into many antineoplastic drugs, helping curb the growth of tumours by blocking the DNA in cancer cells. If a drug’s brand name contains the word “platin”, chances are it contains the precious metal. One such drug claims to be particularly effective against testicular cancer, improving the cure rate from 10% to 85%. In total, this form of chemotherapy uses around three-quarters of a tonne of platinum each year.
Legal tender coins
Having discovered platinum mining deposits at the start of the 19th Century, Russia remains the only country to mint platinum coins for general circulation, running from 1830 to 1845. Nearly 16 tonnes of coins were minted, but production stopped because of low acceptance, volatility in world metal prices, and high minting costs due to platinum’s high melting point and hardness. The only other 'legal tender' platinum coin has yet to be struck, but bloggers and economists say that under US law the Treasury could create a small coin with a face value of $1 trillion, and hand it to the Federal Reserve in exchange for that much cash. Debt-ceiling crisis solved at a stroke!
The International Prototype Kilogram (IPK)
How do you know your kilogram of flour or sugar actually weighs 1 kilogram? First made in 1889 from platinum alloyed with 10% iridium, the International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK) remains the reference standard to calibrate 1kg prototypes worldwide. This cylinder measures 39.17mm in both diameter and height, and is stored at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) near Paris. The BIPM now holds 5 further copies, with all access strictly controlled and supervised by the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM).
If you think electric cars are the future of ecological transport, where will the energy for these engines come from? Fuel cell vehicles look like ordinary cars or buses, but mix hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to create electricity. Aided by a vital platinum catalyst, the only tailpipe emission is pure water. First demonstrated in 1801 by Cornish chemist Humphry Davy, this process became a working fuel cell 3 decades later under Welsh scientist William Grove. NASA used platinum-catalyst fuel cells between 1961 to 1972 to put electricity and drinking water on the Apollo moon missions. Now a stationary fuel cell with 45 grams of platinum (1.4 Troy ounces) has powered 35 homes with 3 kilowatt hours of electricity per day in a field trial in South Africa, proving that fuel-cell technology offers a viable, economic option for off-grid power.
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