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Platinum Uses: Modern Applications

The reason why platinum is today the most valuable of precious metals is because it is required in so many industrial applications. It is estimated that one-fifth of everything we use either contains platinum or requires platinum in its manufacture. Among all the known modern uses of platinum, most of the annual production is consumed by two dominant categories - catalytic converters and fine jewelry. Together, these two applications consume more than 70% of the world's supply of platinum.

Autocatalysts

Platinum is an essential environmental metal used in catalytic converters installed in the exhaust pipes of millions of automobiles worldwide to reduce harmful emissions.
Platinum is an essential environmental metal used in catalytic converters installed in the exhaust pipes of millions of automobiles worldwide to reduce harmful emissions.

The best known use of platinum is in the catalytic converter that is part of the exhaust system in the automobile. Instead of spewing deadly carbon monoxides, hydrocarbons and nitric oxide into the atmosphere, autocatalysts converts these harmful emissions into harmless carbon dioxide and water.

About half of newly mined platinum is used for this purpose. Increased concerns about environment protection has let to tougher emission standards being imposed by governments worldwide, further escalating the demand for the metal.

Jewelry

As credit cards and award winning albums would attest, platinum is now regarded as more prestigious than gold. Its rarity, hypoallergenic and tarnish resistant properties makes platinum the ideal choice for creating the finest of jewelry.

Especially popular in Japan, platinum jewelry is more exclusive than gold and goes very well with diamonds.
Especially popular in Japan, platinum jewelry is more exclusive than gold and goes very well with diamonds.

Many diamond engagement rings are now fashioned out of platinum because its luster makes it far superior to gold in bringing out the brilliance of diamonds. As the color (or colorless) grading of diamonds affects its value, diamonds with lesser color grades tends to be slightly yellowish and much less expensive than colorless diamonds. So, unlike yellow gold, a platinum band is desirable for a diamond ring since it does not make the diamond look yellowish and less valuable. While rhodium-plated white gold may seem like a cheaper alternative to platinum, it needs to be replated every 12-18 months to retain its shine. Thus, platinum remains the metal of choice for the diamond engagement ring.

From being "little silver" used to adulterate other precious metals to becoming the metal of choice for making the finest of jewelry, platinum's rise to becoming the king of metal is indeed a cinderella story.

Fuel Cells

Platinum catalysts enables power generation in this fuel cell car.
Platinum catalysts enables power generation in this fuel cell car.

Fuel cells generate electrical power using hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. As they have no moving parts, a fuel cell generate power silently, emitting only pure water as a by-product. Hence, they do not contribute to either air or noise pollution and are a promising new breed of power source for the automobile industry.

The most common type of fuel cell is the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which contains platinum catalysts. Besides being used to power automobiles, PEM fuel cells can also be used in power generation for buildings, instead of batteries or generators in portable equipment.

Hard Disks

The hard drive is the component of the computer where data is stored. Each drive contains one or more platters or disks where data is stored on the magnetic surfaces. The amount of data that can be recorded on a given surface depends very much on the strength of the magnetic field generated by the surface layer.

Platinum enhanced magnetic alloy allows data to be stored at much higher densities.
Platinum enhanced magnetic alloy allows data to be stored at much higher densities.

Back in 1957 when IBM first introduced the hard disk, storing just 5 megabytes of data require fify disks, each measuring 24 inches in diameter. Sixty years later, a much smaller 3.5 inch disk drive is capable of storing over 500 gigabytes of data. An important process to achieving this remarkable increase in storage capacity is by adding platinum to the cobalt alloy to enhance its magnetic properties, allowing data to be stored at higher densities.

With so much digital content being created (at higher and higher definitions) and then shared online by millions of people over high speed broadband internet, the strong demand for higher capacity disk drives has resulted in more platinum being used in the manufacture of hard disks to enhance their storage capacity. The proportion of platinum in the magnetic alloy has gone up from less than 10 percent in 2002 to 35 percent in 2007.

Petroleum Industry

Platinum catalysts is used in oil refineries to produce high octane fuels.
Platinum catalysts is used in oil refineries to produce high octane fuels.

Beyond cleaning up our air, platinum's excellent catalytic properties also extend to another important industry - the petroleum industry.

Platinum mesh or gauze is used in cracking processes in oil refineries. Platinum catalysts play a critical role in extracting gasoline from crude oil and for making high octane fuels.

However, platinum demand growth in this area can become static in the long run because of efficient platinum recycling processes built into the refineries.