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Platinum – the name means “little silver” – was only identified as a unique element in the middle of the 18th century. Since its discovery, chemists were intrigued by this metal, which they described as “unmeltable” and “infusible” (which meant they couldn’t melt it and mix it into alloys with other metals). They knew – as chemistry is perhaps the most intuitive of the sciences – that it was very special somehow and they were right.
Nowadays we still have a lot of respect and use for platinum; it’s not as beautiful as gold or as easily-mined as silver, but it’s still available here if you want to own some for yourself. If, on the other hand, you want to find out more about how we use Pt, as it’s known to its IUPAC chums, then read on.
It’s helping the environment
The primary use for platinum is in our automotive catalysts. Around 40% of the platinum we have is used here to help to reduce harmful emissions from diesel engines. Our environmental rules are getting stricter, too, so more platinum is used in each new model of catalytic converter.
Other industries use it to speed up reactions
As platinum doesn’t react (well, hardly, anyway), it’s used as a substrate for other compounds to react with each other. Platinum catalysts are used in petroleum refinery, as well as in the production of medicines, synthetic fibres, plastics, fertilizers and dyes; this accounts of 7% of its worldwide usage.
We also it for jewelry
A third of our platinum goes into jewelry. It’s rarer than gold, as well as being a lot harder, so these properties make it an attractive metal, especially in China, where platinum jewelry is very popular.
It’s invaluable in the glass industry
With its very high melting point of 1,768C (gold’s melting point is 1,064C), platinum is ideal for handling molten glass and for drawing glass fibres. This function takes up 2% of our stocks.
It’s used in our bodies
Because it’s the least reactive metal, it can be safely used in medical implants like pacemakers and in medical instruments for surgery, so 3% of the metal is put to work here. Even better, platinum is used in anti-cancer drugs, where it stops the abnormally-rapid replication of DNA in the cancerous cells.
It’s already in your home
Platinum, because of its unreactive nature, is also used in electrics. You can find it in thermo-couples for measuring high temperatures, as well as in LCD screens, in the coating of hard memory disks and in top-end spark plugs. These uses account for around 5% of its consumption.
It’s the metal of the future
An increasingly important use for platinum is in fuel cells. These power cells were invented in the 19th century and left dormant (as it were) for more than a century, when they were used to power satellites and spacecraft. Almost all of our major car manufacturers have developed and produced their fuel cell-powered vehicles; these vehicles are 100% electric, but they can refuel in a matter of minutes rather than hours (as is the case with battery-powered cars). The only waste product from these cells is water, so we could see them replacing the internal combustion engine before the century is out.