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ℹ️ You’re reading Quartz Essentials: quick, engaging outlines of the most important topics affecting the global economy.

Palladium

Published
  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 1

    Not all that glitters is gold. Or silver. Or platinum. Turns out, there are other precious metals—like palladium, although you’re unlikely to wear it on your finger or around your neck.

    Precious metals are defined by chemistry just as much as price. They’re all “noble,” like noble gases, the ones you remember from the far right of the periodic table, in that they don’t interact much with other elements. You don’t hear of gold corroding, do you?

    Palladium is key to the catalytic converter in your car, a pollution-preventing device that you probably don’t think about much, at least until thieves remove it for the value of the palladium within. It might be chemically stable, but its price is quite volatile, swinging up and down more than 40% just in the past two months.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 2

    4.5g: Amount of palladium in an average catalytic converter

    $2,840/oz: Price on Feb. 27, 2020

    $450: Market price for a catalytic converter’s worth of palladium on that day

    30x: Rarity of palladium compared to gold

    3,986: Reports of stolen catalytic converters in the US in 2015, when the price averaged only $696/oz (the last year for which data is available)

    60%: Rise in palladium futures in 2018, highest in the 35 key commodities tracked by Bloomberg

    900: Times its own weight room-temperature palladium can absorb of hydrogen

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 4

    Palladium only interacts with a few other types of chemicals—including pollutants from gasoline engines like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (or NOx) and hydrocarbons, which are harmful to human health and contribute to climate change. The pollutants can be transformed into less harmful molecules, like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. (CO2 contributes to climate change, but far less than the untreated alternative.) But the activation energy for that transformation is very high.

    The few grams of palladium in a catalytic converter catalyze those chemical reactions—lowering the activation energy and allowing the reactions to take place, which might sound familiar from high school chemistry. Palladium (or platinum or rhodium) has electrons in the d-orbital, far enough from the nucleus that the bonds holding the electrons close to the nucleus are fairly weak, so those electrons can interact a bit with nearby molecules.

    The bonds in the molecules in the pollutants that butt up against the palladium weaken, in order to interact with the palladium, and then find it easier to reconnect with each other configured as the less harmful molecules. As with any catalyst, the palladium doesn’t get consumed or changed in the reaction—the palladium molecule’s electrons stay put.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 5

    In the space of a month, on-demand delivery companies have transformed from a luxury of the rich to the connective tissue holding much of the economy together. The extreme societal changes demanded by the virus have given these services an unprecedented opportunity.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 6

    Palladium wasn’t named for Pallas Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom—at least not directly. Palladium was named after the asteroid 2 Pallas, the second-largest on record, discovered right before the element.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 7

    “In 1803 there was circulated throughout the British scientific world a notice of a type almost unparalleled in the history of chemistry,” begins the paper “On the Discovery of Palladium.” “[The author] could not have foreseen the years of acrimonious debate, the bitter partisanship, and the ultimate disgrace of a prominent chemist.”

    The author was William H. Wollaston, a polymathic physician who, among other things, invented the camera lucida, and who became independently wealthy by discovering how to process platinum ore for industrial use. His work on platinum led to his discovery of palladium in 1803, which he produced as a residue by dissolving platinum in hydrochloric and nitric acid. (Wollaston discovered rhodium shortly thereafter.) Rather than publishing the discovery, though, he posted 1,000 anonymous leaflets advertising samples of the new element starting at five shillings’ worth—about £5, or $6.25 today.

    Wollaston’s unconventional announcement raised the suspicion of fellow chemist Richard Chenevix, who bought almost all the samples, spent a couple of weeks of 14-hour days analyzing them, and published an award-winning analysis arguing it was a mere platinum-mercury alloy. The still-anonymous Wollaston bet anyone £20 (about £2,000, or $2,500, today), through another advertisement, to make the alloy and prove Chenevix right.

    Wollaston broke his silence in 1805. Wollaston’s stunt and Chenevix’s incorrect analysis likely damaged both their reputations; Chenevix eventually became a playwright. But the two peers remained friendly, and are both memorialized with mineral names for their scientific accomplishments.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 8

    There’s the London Palladium, the Hollywood Palladium, the Worcester, Massachusetts Palladium, the Palladium Saint Louis, and Palladia in Tampa Bay, Florida, Carmel, Indiana, New York, and elsewhere, but they’re not drafting off the precious metal.

    The London Palladium rose in 1910, designed by the architect of the similarly august London Coliseum and meant to compete with it, the Hippodrome, and the Lyceum. Thus the circus promoter who built the Palladium chose another classical reference. The only problem is that the classical “palladium” was not a venue as its developer believed, but a statue of Pallas erected in Troy as a safeguard and brought to Rome by Aeneas, which became a catchall term for a talismanic figure or icon with that purpose, particularly in early Christianity. Nevertheless, the name stuck and the mistake proliferated.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 10

    The price of palladium has been on a gradual upswing for years, but within that general trend, it has varied wildly. Because palladium is used mostly for catalytic converters, the broad price increase has come as more and more cars are sold, and demand exceeds supply. Volkswagen’s cheating on emissions tests has caused car buyers to skip diesel, which uses platinum-based catalytic converters, further increasing demand. Recent Chinese and European rules requiring reduced emissions have as well. Electric cars don’t emit pollutants, so they don’t need catalytic converters, which might eventually curb the trend.

    The local swings are due to variations in supply. Palladium is produced as a byproduct of mining for other metals, so it’s hard for mining companies to produce more quickly. Political volatility contributes as well. A Russian company, Nornickel, controls about 40% of the world’s palladium supply, so worries about instability related to Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and its 2016 interference in the US election, leading to sanctions on companies owned by Putin-linked oligarchs, have spiked the price too.

    Car companies hedge against big spikes in price, but unsophisticated speculation by Ford in the early 2000s cost it about a billion dollars. So take that as a warning if you try to get into the palladium market on your own. The same US Mint that creates gold and silver coins also makes palladium ones, and the people urging consumers to invest their retirement savings in precious metals… may be ignoble, a Quartz investigation found.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 11

    Palladium was put to work in this process by a French chemical engineer lured to America for his catalytic intelligence. Eugene Houdry discovered that the common, cheap clay substances known as Fuller’s earth could be used to turn long, harder-to-boil carbon chains into short, easier-to-boil carbon chains. In layman’s terms, that means cracking crude oil into gas. Better, cheaper gas helped the Allies win World War II.

    It souped up car culture in the economic boom following the war as well, and in the 1950s scientists proved that automobiles were a major contributor to increasingly dirty air, led by CalTech scientist Arie Haagen-Smit. Houdry began investigating how he could lessen the problem with a similar catalytic process. In 1954, he received a patent for a “catalytic converter for exhaust gases,” which recommends platinum and palladium as materials. Leaded gasoline, incompatible with catalytic converters, delayed their adoption, but by 1975 they were in broad use on new US models.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 12

    Palladium printing was a photograph printing technique used about 100 years ago. Characterized by very warm tones, it’s still used sometimes for art prints.

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  • Quartz Obsession — Palladium — Card 13

    Two thieves and a getaway driver pull off a little heist in the Colindale neighborhood of London.

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