Today’s catalytic converters use a very rare metal known as palladium. In 1924, platinum ore, which palladium comes from, was found in South Africa but up to that time the majority was found in Russia’s Ural Mountains, once considered the palladium breadbasket of the world.
Palladium was named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, Pallas, by British chemist William Hyde Wollaston after his discovery in 1804. After obtaining a sample in 1801, Wollaston isolated palladium by dissolving platinum in hydrochloric and nitric acid (aqua regia). Many thought this derivative from platinum was useless so Wollaston published his findings in 1805 and after 200 years of little usage palladium is now recognized as a key component in combating pollution.
The International Nickel Company of Canada began mass production of palladium in 1830 and the German company, Heraeus, developed and patented palladium alloys, along with other precious metals, in 1931.
Palladium is used heavily in industry today. Every car sold in the US today must be outfitted with a catalytic converter where palladium’s properties assist in converting up to 90% of all harmful exhaust fumes into nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Palladium is also used in electronics, especially in areas where gold usually dominates, such as in switches and electrical contacts, because of its resistance to oxidation. Palladium is also used in a paste form for capacitors and is also used in dentistry.
There currently is an oversupply of palladium; however, no one can predict when another shortage might occur in the future. In 2000 for instance, Norilsk Nickel, a Russian company and the world’s biggest palladium supplier, became unreliable with their deliveries causing a surge in palladium prices going up to as high as $1,090 per ounce in 2001.
With alternative energies on the horizon there is no end to future uses for palladium. Scientists are very interested in using palladium for fuel cell research. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce heat, electricity and water with minimal pollution and if the results are even half of what’s expected it could not only revolutionize man’s impact on the environment but possibly create another surge in palladium usage.
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