Thursday, August 23, 2012

Platinum: The World’s Most Versatile Precious Metal?

Given that its uses now transcend as mere bling in the jeweler’s world, does platinum today truly qualify as the world’s most versatile precious metal? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Lately, platinum gained the mainstream media’s attention when in August 16, 2012, when 34 striking mine workers over a wage dispute in a Lonmin owned platinum mine located in the town of Marikana, South Africa got shot and killed by the local police force. The news of the class sent the global price of platinum rising to 30 US dollars per troy ounce during that day’s trading. Given that South Africa supplies 75% of the world’s platinum needs, the striking workers’ demands for pay raise can only be described as fair. And for some time now, gold has been more expensive than platinum – as by August 17, 2012 platinum prices hovered in the 1,450 US dollars per troy ounce mark as opposed to gold’s 1,600 US dollars per troy ounce level. Given that platinum may soon again be more expensive than gold, will platinum’s price premium truly justified by its title as the world’s most versatile precious metal?  

 Platinum, named after platina or little silver is the most abundant and most used member of the platinum metal family, which includes iridium, osmium, palladium, rhodium and ruthenium. Placed in the second transition metals region of the Periodic Table of elements, ancient artifacts made of metallic platinum have been unearthed. Though platinum wasn’t known as a distinct metal until 1557 when it was discovered in Mexico by the Italian poet and adventurer named Julius Caesar Scaliger. In 1741, the first sample of the metal was bought to Europe by an English metallurgist named Charles Wood. 

The world’s leading producer of platinum is the Republic of South Africa while other major producers are Canada, Russia and former Soviet states in Central Asia. Platinum occurs in both native – as in elemental state and in compounds. In its native state, It is usually occurs in sandlike grains in placer deposits with similar grains of the other metals of its family or with copper, cobalt, nickel or gold ores. However, large nuggets of platinum have also been found. The most important of the platinum ores are sperrylite – platinum arsenide, and cooperlite – platinum sulfide. 

Platinum is the last element in Group VIIIA of the Periodic Table. It is a silvery metal, soft, dense very ductile and malleable, and with a high tensile strength. Its electrical conductivity is comparatively low, and its coefficient of expansion is the lowest of the commercially produced metals. Platinum is untarnished by air, but vaporizes appreciably at red heat. The halogens, including fluorine, have no effect at ordinary room temperature and single mineral acids do not dissolve platinum. Aqua Regia (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid) and a mixture of hydrochloric and chloric acids dissolve the metal. It is also attacked at high temperatures by fused nitrates, acid sulfates, hydroxides, peroxides, sulfides, iodine, phosphorous, arsenic, carbon, silicon, selenium and tellurium. 

At present, most of the platinum commercially produced not destined for jewelry use go into the making of catalytic converters in modern automobiles where they remove most of the nitric and sulfuric oxides found in car exhausts. Because of its relative chemical inactivity, platinum, both as a free metal and alloyed with rhodium, is an almost indispensable material for such devices as magneto contacts, spark-plug electrodes, radar parts and in critical analog computer components of World War II era bombsights. In the chemical – as in petrochemical – industries, platinum and its alloys are essential catalysts – for example in making nitric acid from ammonia; As spinnerets and bushings in the production of rayon and glass fiber; As electrodes in industrial processes involving anodic oxidation – as in producing perchlorates and peroxides and electrodeposition of nickel and rhodium and for corrosion and heat-resistant treatment of measuring and recording devices. In addition, platinum has been used extensively in jewelry, dentistry, X-Ray equipment, laboratory apparatus, medical and surgical instruments and heating units (bomb calorimeters). 

Monday, August 6, 2012

In Search Of The Philosopher’s Stone

It is a substance believed to be able to turn base metals into gold and give humans eternal life, but has modern science ever been closer in creating an actual “Philosopher’s Stone”?

By: Ringo Bones

It seems that the now mystical pseudoscience of alchemy was born out of humanity’s historic search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone – a substance believed to be able to turn base metals – i.e. common cheap metals like lead and iron – into a noble metal like gold. The first alchemist ever to record their activity that survived to posterity were Alexandrian Greeks who thought that metals could directly be transmuted into gold as then theorized by the Greek philosopher Aristotle – but most later European alchemists believed no one could transmute anything until he (or she) had formulated the “Philosopher’s Stone”.

Since the decline of the Roman Empire, alchemy then found its way into every corner of the civilized world – from the hills of China, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean eventually to the European laboratories. There were many theories about the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone – whether an actual stone, a tincture or a powder. But the main theory on how to use it when turning base metals into gold was to encase it in wax and then drop it into the molten metal that was intended to be converted into gold. During the Medieval Period, news spread throughout Europe that Chinese alchemists were reputed to have successfully created gold from base metals and the life-preserving potion then called the “Elixir of Life” after discovering the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone.

With persistent tales of  being successfully able to turn base metals into gold during the Medieval Period, European royalty – fearing the depreciation of the monetary value of gold – once declared that the practice of alchemy is punishable by death. During 1457, a group of 12 leading British alchemists wrote a petition to King Henry VI of England seeking exemption from the law banning their practice. The written petition survives to this day and is even preserved and put on display in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Despite being denied success on their search for the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemy managed to survive a few centuries more in Britain where even the great Sir Isaac Newton was reputed to have been a practitioner of alchemy whenever he’s not to busy engrossed in refining his then newly discovered mathematics called calculus.

For all their mumbo jumbo about three-armed dragons and parboiled kings, alchemists managed to leave behind a proud record of their achievements. Alchemists has since been credited with the discovery of five elements – i.e. antimony, arsenic, bismuth, phosphorus and zinc – as well as alcohol and many of the acids and alkali substances found and used in today’s chemistry laboratories. Even though alchemy never manage to achieve its ambitious quest of turning base metals into gold via the Philosopher’s Stone as smug Victorian era scientists laugh at the goal itself. But 20th Century nuclear physicists eventually found a dramatic version of the Philosopher’s Stone in the neutrons that started the chain reaction which set off the first atomic bomb and transmuted uranium into some three dozen different chemical elements. The crafty old alchemists may have had the last laugh after all.

Today – if you have a modest fortune to spare and have the requisite knowledge of chemistry and nuclear physics – you to can convert a lesser valued metal into gold. Today’s small research nuclear fission reactions found in most ivy-league colleges that are primarily used to produce radioactive isotopes for medical use that costs 200 US dollars an hour to run can be used in your very own alchemy experiment. Using ordinary mercury – which is mostly composed of the stable isotope mercury-193 – put it into the nuclear reactor to be bombarded by neutrons and it will be turning about 1/3 of a US cent of the isotope gold-192 a day.

Even though the “synthetic atomic gold-193” is chemically indistinguishable from the good old fashioned mined gold – producing it is so much more - really much more - expensive compared to conventionally mining gold that the world’s gold dealers won’t be fearing their product being depreciated in value by artificially produced atomic gold-192 anytime soon. Maybe you should just make some radioactive gold-198 to be sold for intracavitary use in metastasized cancer treatment in order to recoup some of the costs.