History of PGM
Although the modern history of platinum only begins in the 18th
century, platinum has been found in objects dating from 700 BC, in
particular the famous Casket of Thebes (see image). This little box
is decorated with hieroglyphics in gold, silver and an alloy of the
platinum group metals.
For the Spanish Conquistadors of the 16th century, platinum was
a nuisance. While panning for gold in New Granada they were puzzled
by some white metal nuggets which were mixed with the nuggets of
gold and which were difficult to separate. The Spanish called this
metal Platina, a diminutive of Plata, the Spanish word for silver.
Some thought that the platinum was a sort of unripe gold, so that
for many years it had no value except as a means of
In the 18th century platinum was a tough challenge to European
scientists trying to understand and use the metal. Their
difficulties came from the very properties which make platinum
suitable for so many applications, such as its high melting point
and its great resistance to corrosion. The problems were compounded
by the other metals of the platinum group, which were present in
raw platinum in varying quantities.
In 1751, a Swedish researcher named Sheffer succeeded in melting
platinum by adding arsenic to it. He also recognised platinum as a
new element. In 1782, Lavoisier achieved the first true melting of
platinum using oxygen, which had recently been discovered; even so,
it was another 25 years before commercial quantities of platinum
could be produced by this method. During this period, platinum was
used for the decoration of porcelain as well as for making
laboratory ware and ornaments.
In the 19th century scientific and technological progress
gathered pace. During 1802, Wollaston (pictured right) and Tennant
developed refining of platinum and discovered palladium, followed
in 1804 by rhodium, iridium and osmium. Meanwhile Wollaston
perfected a method of producing malleable platinum. Grove studied
the catalytic properties of platinum and in 1842 devised the very
first fuel cell
using platinum electrodes.
In England, Percival Norton Johnson began work on refining the
platinum group metals. He took as his apprentice in 1838 George
Matthey, and this collaboration gave birth to the partnership of Johnson and Matthey in 1851. The two men
perfected the techniques of separation and refining of platinum
group metals and the melting and casting of pure and homogeneous
ingots. Matthey went on to create the standard metre in platinum
and iridium, at the request of the French Academy of Science, in
Growth in supplies
Until 1820 Colombia was the only known source of platinum. As production began to decline,
deposits were by chance discovered in the Ural mountains of Russia. These became
the principal source of platinum for the next 100 years.
in 1888, platinum was discovered in the nickel-copper ores of
Ontario. Between the end of the First World War and the 1950s,
Canada was the world's major source of supply. In 1924 a farmer in
the Transvaal province of South Africa discovered several nuggets of
platinum in a riverbed. Following this up, the geologist Hans
Merensky discovered two deposits each of around 100 kilometres in
length. These became known as the Bushveld Igneous Complex and its
mines today provide three quarters of the world's platinum
The last 50 years
Platinum mine production has grown continuously since the Second
World War in response to the development of new applications.
One of the principal new uses of platinum was in the petroleum industry,
where platinum catalysts were introduced to increase the octane
rating of gasoline and to manufacture important primary feedstocks
for the growing plastics industry.
During the 1960s, demand for platinum in jewellery
experienced a spectacular rise in Japan, appealing to the Japanese
public by virtue of its purity, colour, prestige and value.
Platinum jewellery later succeeded in penetrating other markets -
in Germany in the 1970s, Switzerland and Italy in the 1980s and the
United Kingdom, the USA and China - today the world's biggest
single market for platinum jewellery - in the 1990s.
In 1974, with its new regulations on air quality, the United
States inaugurated the era of the autocatalyst, a technology which uses
platinum group metals to convert the noxious gases in vehicle
exhausts into harmless substances. Use of autocatalysts has spread
worldwide and since its introduction has prevented over 12 billion
tonnes of pollution from entering the earth's atmosphere.
During the 1980s the rapid increase in the value of precious
metals, including platinum, gave rise to the production of a
variety of bars and coins, many of them collectable items, to meet
demand for platinum as a physical investment product.
By the 1990s, platinum was growing in use as a medical treatment
against certain forms of cancer and the same decade saw a
multiplication in the uses of machined platinum alloy components
(as seen right) to treat cardiac and other disease.
"A History of Platinum and its Allied
Metals", by Donald McDonald & Leslie B. Hunt
This book describes the history of platinum and its associated
metals, covering important discoveries and scientific work on the
platinum group metals up to the early twentieth century. With
twenty-four chapters, 450 pages, over 600 references and 235
illustrations (20 in colour) including 100 portraits, The History
of Platinum and its Allied Metals is the definitive description of
how science was able to progress by means of the unique properties
of these metals.
The publication is available to download in .pdf format or as an
A limited number of hard copies are available. To order a copy,
price U.K.£20, Europe €30 or U.S.$45 (includes postage and
packing), please fill in your details at contact us, selecting the category "History
of Platinum and its Allied Metals".