Monday, November 19, 2012
Element of the Month: Palladium!
November's Element of the Month:
Atomic Mass: 106.42 amu
Melting Point: 1554.9 °C
Boiling Point: 2963 °C
It is unfortunate that I don't really understand chemistry very well. If I did, I might be able to tell you how catalytic converters work. I guess it will have to suffice to say that Palladium, our Element of the Month for November, is all about catalysis. It totally triggers reactions by which nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide are rendered into regular old Nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and unburnt hydrocarbons are rendered into carbon dioxide and water. So unless your vehicle is even older than mine, which is unlikely, you are likely packing around a certain amount of Palladium in your exhaust system.
Cleaning automotive exhaust is a useful and socially commendable task, but it's yeoman's work for what is technically a precious metal. Palladium is similar in many ways to its elemental cousin Platinum, with which it is generally found in nature, and like other rare shiny metals it is sometimes used in making pretty shiny things. It is not quite as durable or easy to work as some of the other rare shinies, however, so it can be spared for technical uses, for instance in electronic capacitors and in the purification and storage of Hydrogen. But there is no shame in having to work for a living. Even Platinum often pitches in and takes on its share of catalytic converting.
Like a lot of useful but rareish materials with few points of supply, Palladium has been subject to a lot of goofiness in the commodities markets of this our modern age. A dozen or so years ago, the Palladium mines of Russia's Ural Mountains were, for reasons X, Y, and Z, failing to get much of the shiny stuff to market, causing a tremendous spike in price. At least one vast automobile making conglomerate -- fearing that without Palladium, it wouldn't be able to make catalytic converters, and therefore would not be able to produce street-legal cars -- bought up every scrap it could find at the top of the spike, and then felt abashed when the subsequent resumption of supply brought prices back in line with historical norms. To the extent, that is, that the people who make up a vast manufacturing conglomerate can collectively feel abashed.
Readers, I must confess I fear that certain unscrupulous people may sometimes try to manipulate the market prices of our precious natural elements in hope of profiting at the expense of others! It is at least true that Mrs.5000's business fax machine will occasionally chatter to life in the dead of night with a random exhortation that now, now is the time to invest in a little known company that shall surely profit mightily in the coming Palladium boom! And in preparing this little write-up, I was amused to see it claimed on a well-known open-source online encyclopedia that Palladium is used in "one fourth of all goods that come to market." It's hard to imagine what such a nakedly absurd claim would be doing there, if it were not bait placed for the benefit of people doing "investment research." I deleted it for the nonce, but left in the relatively more truthy "the numerous applications and limited supply sources of palladium result in the metal attracting considerable investment interest."
Palladium was discovered in 1802 by William Hyde Wollaston, an incredibly brainy guy who would also discover Rhodium the next year; he was messing around with Platinum smelting at the time, which brought him in contact with some of the other elements that tend to hang out with Platinum. He was also instrumental in developing electric motors, batteries, and the concept of the conservation of energy. He was, though, one of the guys who insisted that Niobium and Tantalum were the same thing. He was wrong about that.