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Although platinum-containing gold artifacts have been dated as far back as 700 BC, the presence of this metal is more likely adventitious than deliberate. References to gray, dense pebbles associated with alluvial gold deposits were made by Jesuits in the 16th century. These pebbles could not be melted alone but would alloy with and adulterate gold to the extent that the gold bars would become brittle and impossible to refine. The pebbles became known as platina del Pinto--that is, granules of silvery material from the Pinto River, a tributary of the San Juan River in the Choc— region of Colombia. Platinum Price Now

Malleable platinum, obtainable only upon purification to essentially pure metal, was first produced by the French physicist P.F. Chabaneau in 1789; it was fabricated into a chalice that was presented to Pope Pius VI. The discovery of palladium was claimed in 1802 by the English chemist William Wollaston, who named it for the asteroid Pallas. Wollaston subsequently claimed the discovery of another element present in platinum ore; this he called rhodium, after the rose colour of its salts. The discoveries of iridium (named after Iris, goddess of the rainbow, because of the variegated colour of its salts) and osmium (from the Greek word for "odour," because of the chlorinelike odour of its volatile oxide) were claimed by the English chemist Smithson Tennant in 1803. The French chemists Hippolyte-Victor Collet-Descotils, Antoine-Fran¨ois Fourcroy, and Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin identified the two metals at about the same time. Ruthenium, the last element to be isolated and identified, was given a name based on the Latinized word for Russia by the Russian chemist Karl Karlovich Klaus in 1844.

Unlike gold and silver, which could be readily isolated in a comparatively pure state by simple fire refining, the platinum metals require complex aqueous chemical processing for their isolation and identification. Because these techniques were not available until the turn of the 19th century, the identification and isolation of the platinum group lagged behind silver and gold by thousands of years. In addition, the high melting points of these metals limited their applications until researchers in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia devised methods for consolidating and working platinum into useful forms. The fashioning of platinum into fine jewelry began about 1900, but, while this application remains important even today, it was soon eclipsed by industrial uses. Palladium became a very desirable material for contact points in the relays of telephone and other wire communications systems, where it provided long life and a high level of reliability, and platinum, because of its resistance to spark erosion, was incorporated into spark plugs for combat aircraft during World War II.

After the war the expansion of molecular conversion techniques in the refining of petroleum created a great demand for the catalytic properties of the platinum metals. This demand grew even more in the 1970s, when automotive emission standards in the United States and other countries led to the use of platinum metals in the catalytic conversion of exhaust gases.


With the exception of small alluvial deposits of platinum, palladium, and iridosmine (an alloy of iridium and osmium), virtually no ores exist in which the major metal is from the platinum group. Platinum minerals are usually highly disseminated in sulfide ores, particularly the nickel mineral pentlandite [(Ni,Fe)9S8]. The most common platinum-group minerals include laurite (RuS2), irarsite [(Ir,Ru,Rh,Pt)AsS], osmiridium (Ir,Os), cooperite (PtS), and braggite [(Pt,Pd)S].

Mining and Concentrating

The major South African and Canadian deposits are exploited by underground mining. Virtually all platinum-group metals are recovered from copper or nickel sulfide minerals, which are concentrated by flotation separation. Smelting of the concentrate produces a matte that is leached of copper and nickel sulfides in an autoclave. The solid leach residue contains 15 to 20 percent platinum-group metals. Sometimes gravity separation is employed prior to flotation; this results in a concentrate containing up to 50 percent platinum metals, making smelting unnecessary.

Extraction and Refining

The separation chemistry of the platinum-group metals is among the most complex and challenging of metal separations. A brief description of procedures for isolating the platinum-group metals is set forth below, followed by descriptions of assaying and scrap-refining techniques.

Individual solubilization

The classical procedure for separating the platinum metals begins with a mineral concentrate obtained as described above. This concentrate is leached with aqua regia, which dissolves the platinum and palladium and leaves the other metals as solids in the leach residue. The platinum is precipitated from solution with ammonium chloride, and the resulting crude platinum salt is recovered by filtration and then heated to decompose it to a powdered metallic form. The metal is redissolved in aqua regia, then reprecipitated with ammonium chloride and calcined to pure metal. The palladium, which remained in solution when the platinum was precipitated, is now precipitated by the addition of ammonia. After the palladium salts are recovered by filtration, they are redissolved and reprecipitated to form a pure salt, and this is converted to metallic form, usually by chemical reduction with formic acid.

The residue left over from leaching the original mineral concentrate contains rhodium, iridium, ruthenium, and osmium. This is treated with molten sodium bisulfate to convert the rhodium to rhodium sulfate. The rhodium is then solubilized by water leaching, separated from the insolubles, and precipitated from solution by reduction with zinc powder. The crude rhodium metal product is converted to a soluble salt by treatment with chlorine and sodium chloride at high temperature, dissolved in water, precipitated with sodium nitrite, filtered, redissolved, and reprecipitated with ammonium chloride. This final precipitate is reduced to a pure metal powder.

The residue from rhodium sulfate leaching is fused with alkali nitrate salts to convert ruthenium to soluble sodium ruthenate. After filtration, the solution of sodium ruthenate is treated with chlorine gas to distill off the ruthenium as the volatile compound ruthenium tetroxide. The ruthenium-bearing distillate is then treated with reducing agents to precipitate the ruthenium as a fine metal powder. Osmium is recovered in a similar fashion, although, unlike ruthenium, it can also be recovered by distillation from acidic solutions.

The final residue is treated with sodium peroxide to convert iridium to a form soluble in hydrochloric acid, from which it can be precipitated with ammonium chloride and calcined to metal powder.

Simultaneous solubilization

Simultaneous solubilization of all platinum metals can be accomplished by fusing the mineral concentrate obtained from copper and nickel sulfide ores with aluminum metal, dissolving the aluminum, and treating the residue with hydrochloric acid and chlorine. This dissolves all platinum-group metals, which are subsequently separated by solvent extraction. The individual metal solutions are then treated by conventional techniques to recover the various metals in a pure state.


Irrespective of the chemical separation processes used, the platinum metals are recovered in a finely divided metallic powder form. They can be converted to massive metal form by electron-beam melting. The lower-melting-point metals palladium and platinum can be fused by induction melting techniques.


Assaying ores and concentrates for platinum-group metals is extremely difficult, since the concentration of any particular metal may be less than one part per million. Initial concentration is achieved by fire assay. The assay bead is dissolved in aqua regia and the metals separated and concentrated, often by solvent extraction. Dissolution of the bead is complicated by the presence of iridium, rhodium, or ruthenium, so that special solubilizing techniques may be required. The concentrated solutions are analyzed by atomic absorption spectroscopy or photometric techniques. Arc spectroscopy is sometimes employed directly on the bead obtained from fire assay.

The metals and their alloys

The mechanical properties of the six platinum metals differ greatly. Platinum and palladium are rather soft and very ductile; these metals and most of their alloys can be worked hot or cold. Rhodium is initially worked hot, but cold-working can be done later with rather frequent annealing. Iridium can be worked hot, as can ruthenium, but with difficulty; neither metal can be cold-worked appreciably.

Osmium is the hardest of the group and has the highest melting point, but its ready oxidation is a limitation. Iridium is the most corrosion-resistant of the platinum metals, while rhodium is valued for retaining its properties at high temperatures.

Structural applications

Since pure annealed platinum is extremely soft, it is susceptible to scratching and marring. In order to improve hardness, it is alloyed with a variety of other elements. Platinum jewelry is very popular in Japan, where it is called hakkin, or "white gold." Alloys for jewelry castings include 90-percent-platinum-10-percent-palladium, which is readily worked and brazed. Adding ruthenium to platinum-palladium alloys increases their hardness while maintaining their oxidation resistance. Alloys of platinum-palladium-copper are used in wrought products, since these alloys are harder than platinum-palladium alloys yet less costly.

Crucibles used for single-crystal production in the semiconductor industry require both corrosion resistance and stability at high temperature. For this application, platinum, platinum-rhodium, and iridium are the best suited. Platinum-rhodium alloys are employed in the production of thermocouples that are capable of measuring temperatures as high as 1,800¼ C (3,270¼ F). Palladium is used in both the pure and alloyed states for a variety of electrical applications (accounting for 50 percent of consumption) and for dental alloys (30 percent of consumption). Rhodium, ruthenium, and osmium are used rarely in the pure state but rather as alloying elements for the other platinum-group metals.