PLATINUM AND SILVER, THEIR USES AND THE WORLD’S FIRST MONEY

WHAT IS RARER THAN GOLD?

Smithsonian magazine reported: “Why gold?..Gold really isn’t all that special. There are far more useful elements out there. And several that are rarer than gold are listed below. All of these, like gold, are noble metals, meaning that they are resistant to corrosion. [Source: Smithsonian magazine, Surprising Science, August 8, 2011]

“1) Platinum (Pt): Most familiar for its use in jewelry, platinum is more often used in the systems that control vehicle emissions in our cars. Other uses include electronics, spark plugs and in drugs to treat cancer. 2) Palladium (Pd): Palladium is similar to platinum in both appearance and in use; it appears in vehicle emissions equipment and electronics. It’s also a key component in fuel cells. 3) Ruthenium (Ru): Like platinum and palladium, ruthenium is a silvery metal that does not easily tarnish. It is used as a catalyst and to harden those other similar metals, platinum and palladium. [Ibid]

“4) Rhenium (Re): The last of the naturally occurring elements to be discovered, this silvery metal is used in small amounts with nickel in jet engines. Rhenium isotopes are used to treat liver cancer. 5) Rhodium (Rh): Some white gold and sterling silver jewelry is plated with rhodium, which improves its appearance. It is also used in aircraft spark plugs, fountain pens and mammography systems. 6) Osmium (Os): The densest of natural elements---twice as dense as lead---this blue-grey metal finds a home in applications where hardness and durability are essential. Applications include surgical implants, electrical contacts and the tips of fountain pens. [Ibid]

“&) Iridium (Ir): If iridium sounds familiar, that might be because there’s a group of communications satellites named after this element, a hard, brittle and dense metal. Or it could be because the K-T boundary that marks the geologic end of the dinosaurs is laced with iridium; the metal is more common in asteroids and meteorites than in the Earth’s crust. Iridium can also be found in crystals in computer memory devices, deep-water pipes, X-ray telescopes and the equipment that makes rayon fibers. [Ibid]

Mineral and Energy Production : United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity ; Index Mundi indexmundi.com/minerals/ ; Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy eia.doe.gov/emeu/international ; Nationmaster nationmaster.com

Websites and Resources on Mining: Mining.com mining.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mining Engineering books.google.com/books ; Geology and Hard Rock Mining rmmlf.org/scitech/ ; Mining technology mining-technology.com ;

Websites and Resources on Minerals: Mineralogy Database webmineral.com ; Minerals and Gemstone Kingdom minerals.net ; Mindat.org mindat.org ; Minerals Atlas mineralatlas.com ;

Platinum

The platinum group of metals (platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium) are among the rarest, expensive and useful of all metals. Platinum is a grayish-white meal that is extremely dense, malleable and ductile. A cubic foot of platinum weighs 1,300 pounds (compared to 85 pounds for a cubic foot of coal). It is so rare that all the platinum every mined would only fill a cube 14 feet square. [Source: Gordon Young, National Geographic, November 1983 [┺];

Platinum has a very high melting point (3,334.3̊F). It doesn't corrode or dissolve in acids and it for most part inert. Alloys made from it are excellent conductors and have extraordinary magnetic qualities. These traits make it one of the world's most useful materials. When it was discovered that platinum could be used in automobile pollution-reducing catalytic converters the price of the rare metal sky rocketed to US$1000 an ounce.

Traces of platinum have been found in inlays from ancient Egypt, where the metal was probably mistaken for silver. Pre-Columbian Indians fashioned it into jewelry. The Spanish were the first to report it as a new metal and named it platinum (little silver). They found grains of it while panning for gold in the Choco region of Columbia and, believing it had not ripened, threw it back in the river to mature.

World Mine Production, By Country (Metric tons of contained molybdenum, 2006): 1) China 59,800; 2) United States 57,000; 3) Chile 44,912; 4) Peru 16,737; 5) Canada 12,000; 6) Mexico 6,15; 7) Armenia 4,080; 8) Russian Federation 3,300; 9) Iran, Islamic Republic Of 2,600; 10) Mongolia 1,300; 11) Uzbekistan 600; 12) Kazakhstan 400; 13) Kyrgyzstan 250 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

About 520,000 kilograms of ore, rock, soil and sand needs to be excavated to produce one kilogram of platinum. [Source: Japanese Environmental Ministry]

Uses of Platinum, Palladium and Platinum Products

Platinum is used in the automobile industry, mostly catalytic converters (38 percent), electrical and electronic industry (29 percent), dentistry (9 percent) and other (24 percent).

Catalytic converters contain trace amounts of platinum but also palladium and rhodium which speed up chemical reactions and helps the converter clean emissions at extremely high temperatures. Refineries use platinum to turn crude oil into gasoline. Computers and other electronic devices also have platinum in them. The metal is widely used in batteries and are essential in preserving the clarity of liquid crystal televisions.

Palladium is also used in desalinization About 810,000 kilograms of ore, rock, soil and sand needs to be excavated to produce one kilogram of palladium. [Source: Japanese Environmental Ministry]

Electrodes for pacemakers, flutes with superior sound, batteries in spaceships and electric cars, cancer-fighting drugs, ozone-removing devices on airliners, coatings for razors are all made of platinum. Platinum is an important catalyst in the chemical and electrical industries. It is used the commercial production of sulfuric and nitric acid and the refining of petroleum. The metal is also essential for the making of explosives, artificial rubies for lasers, fertilizers, contact lenses, fuel cells for new types of cars and electrical systems on planes.

The official kilogram weight and meter stick at the International Bureau of Standards in Paris is made from an iridium-platinum alloy. The poison impregnated pellet injected into the leg of Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov in London in 1978 was made of platinum. It took the poison four days kill him but doctors were not able to locate the pellet because the inert qualities of platinum didn't cause a biological reaction. London's plush Platinum shop sells a platinum clad calculator for US$83,000 dollars.

Platinum is one of the most expensive metals used in jewelry. A wedding bans that cost $2,000 if made from white gold and $1,500 if made from palladium will set you back $3,000 if made from platinum.

Platinum Producers

In 2007 global production of platinum was only 204 tons. In some years the world production of platinum is only around 100 tons. Ten to 15 tons of platinum is recovered from old cars each year in Japan.

Ninety percent of the world’s reserves and 77 percent of the production of platinum group of metals are in South Africa. The only other place with significant reserves is Russia. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest piece of platinum ever found was a 340-ounce nugget found in Ural Mountains of Russia on 1843. Platinum is also found in Canada, the United States, Columbia and Japan.

Platinum is found in relatively pure form in small grains and nuggets. It is also found in mineral ore sperrylite (platinum arsenide). The platinum group of metals are commonly found in the same regions in geological formation similar to those that produce gold. Platinum is often produced as a by-product of the refining of nickel, gold, silver and copper ores.

Most of the world's platinum, by a wide margin, comes from the Transvaal Province of South Africa, the homeland of Bophuthatswana and the Russian Arctic. Most of South Africa's platinum is located in the Merensky Reef, an area situated in the 270 mile long and 180 mile wide Busheveld Complex. Some of mines here are several thousand feet deep and the mining process is similar to that found in gold mines. Geologists say it is an anomaly that so much platinum exist here. There is enough of it to last for centuries but at some point in time it make become uneconomical to mine. As it stands now a ton of ore only yields enough platinum to coat a person's fingernail.

About 80 percent of the global platinum went to Japan in the early 1990s when the bubble economy was still going strong. Now a lot of it goes to China.

In 2010 the price of platinum rose sharply due to demand from China for use of the metal in jewelry and industry. Speculators expecting industrial demand to rise even further bought up the metal, driving prices up even more.

Platinum demand in China in 2009 was 63 tons, triple the figure in 1998, and about one third of global demand. About 90 percent of the platinum used in China that year was for jewelry. Many Chinese brides demand platinum wedding bands as the believe that rings with the metal go better with Western-style white wedding dresses, which these days are preferred by many women over traditional red Chinese-style wedding dresses.

High Platinum Prices

Platinum reached a record $1,104.80 an ounce in March 2006 and palladium reached $350.30 an ounce the same month. The price of platinum rose from $1,225 a troy ounce in 2007 to $2,300 an ounce in 2008 before falling back down to $1,600. The high prices when platinum peaked were mainly the result of disturbances at South African mines that disrupted the world’s supply.

In 2010 the price of platinum rose sharply due to demand from China for use of the metal in jewelry and industry. Speculators, expecting industrial demand to rise even further, bought up the metal, driving prices up even more.

In the United States it has become fairly common for thieves to use battery-powered saws to remove the catalytic converters from cars and sell them so the precious metals in them---namely platinum but also palladium and rhodium---which can be separated out and resold. Thieves can sell stolen convertors to scrap yards or recyclers for a couple hundred dollars a piece.

Generally the larger and more expensive the vehicle the larger and more expensive the catalytic converter, and the more platinum and other precious metals. SUVs are sought by thieves because they have large convertors and their high clearance makes them easy to climb under. No jacking up is necessary---all one has to do is crawl underneath and saw off the convertor.

Silver

Silver is the most common precious metal. Lighter and harder than gold, it is prized for its beauty and its applications in the electronics and film industries. It is no surprise that through much of human history, silver was the material used most to make money. It is also used in electrical and electronic products, sterlingware, electroplated ware, and jewelry. Silver is mined in more than 60 countries, including the U.S. (Nevada 34 percent and Idaho 14 percent), Mexico, Canada and Peru.

What makes silver valuable are its scientific properties. Highly polished silver reflects light better than any other metal and conducts electricity more efficiently than copper. It resists acids and activates oxygen to kill bacteria. Silver resist corrosion but easily reacts with sulphur compounds in the air which is why it tarnishes. before the digital age about half of all the silver produced was used in making photographic film. When a silver salt on a piece of film is developed into a silver grain on the photograph light is amplified a billion times, producing the picture. One ounce of silver is enough to produce 5000 photographs. [Source: Allen A. Boraiko, National Geographic, September 1981 ╹]

Because silver is such an efficient conductor of electricity it is widely used in electrical and electronic products and is made into wire and solder and electrical contacts for joining metals. Because it resists organic acids and bases it is used to line vats and tanks in the chemical and food industries. It is also used as a catalyst and an ingredient in a number of chemical processes. Solar energy collectors use silver to concentrate the sun's rays and satellites operate on silver oxide batteries. Surgeon disinfect burns with silver ointment and crystals of silver iodine are dropped on clouds to produce rain.

Silver jewelry and sterling are made from 92.5 percent silver. The other 7.5 percent is another metal---usually copper---added to make it stronger. Silver electroplated of copper or silver-copper tableware yields silver plate. A silversmith can tell the difference between sterling silver and plated silver with a drop of nitric acid. If it's silver plate the acid eats through the metal.

World Mine Production, By Country (Metric tons, 2007): 1) Peru 3,471; 2) Mexico 2,700; 3) China 2,600; 4) Australia 1,727; 5) Chile 1,607; 6) Poland 1,325; 7) Russian Federation 1,300; 8) United States 1,140; 9) Canada 983; 10) Kazakhstan 830; 11) Bolivia 500; 12) Indonesia 377; 13) Sweden 268; 14) Argentina 200; 15) Morocco 195; 16) South Africa 87; 17) Turkey 85; 18) Uzbekistan 83; 19) Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The 68; 20) Honduras 55 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

History of Silver

Silver is mentioned in ancient Chinese document. The Egyptians refereed to silver as "white gold." In the 7th century B.C., the world's first coins were minted with a silver and gold alloy called electrum. Seven centuries later Judas received a pocketful of Phoenician silver coins for his betrayal of Jesus.

Silver has a long history of medicinal use. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome silver was used to fight infections. Pliny the Elder described how silver plasters helped wounds heal quicker. In1884 a German doctor found that applying a few drops of silver to babies born of mother with venereal disease virtually eliminated their chance of getting blindness often associated with the disease. Silver is making a comeback as an antiseptic as more bacteria are developing a resistance to antibiotics. Silver is most potent is ionic form. Scientists are ways to deploy it using nanotechnology.

World's First Money

The worlds' first money, many scholars say, was circulated in the 7th century B.C. by the Lydians.. The thumb-nail-size coins were struck from lumps of electrum, a pale yellow alloy of gold and silver, that had washed down streams from nearby limestone mountains. The late Oxford scholar Colin Kray surmised that the Lydian government found the coins useful as standard medium of exchange and merchants liked them because they didn't have to do a lot of weighing and measuring. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, January 1993]

There is some debate as to where the world's first money came from. Some scholars say the world's oldest coins are spade money from Zhou dynasty China dated to 770 B.C. In the seventh century B.C. coins were minted in China with the names of towns printed on them. These coins were tiny, minted pieces of bronze shaped like knives and spades.

The Lydians lived on the west coast of Asia Minor near present-day Izmir, Turkey, They made thumb-nail-size coins under King Gyges in 670 B.C. What made the Lydian coins different from the Chinese coins were inscriptions of the king’s government---widely seen as endorsement of the money by the king. Some coins had portraits of Lydian King Gyges. These have been found as far east as Sicily. Others were struck in denominations as small as .006 of an ounce (1/50th the weight of a penny).

Electrum was panned from local riverbeds. First unearthed at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the coins had many of the same features of modern coins: they were made of a precious metal, the were a specific measured size and they were stamped with images of rulers, animals and mythical beats.

The idea of coinage was so popular that it was adopted by several Greek city-states only a few decades after the first coins appeared in Lydia. The Greeks made coins of various denominations in unalloyed gold and silver and the stamped them with images of gods and goddesses.

The Lydians also likely produced the first pure gold and pure silver coins during the kingdom of Croesus (561-547 B.C.) The problem with the electrum coins is that the amount of gold varied and thus the value of the coins varied.. This problem was solved by producing pure or nearly pure gold and silver coins.

Silver in Peru

In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Pizarro defeated the Incas with 37 horses and 160 men, half of whom "were in very poor shape and sickly," in a bloody ambush in the Andean town of Cajamarca. The Spanish held the Incan leader, Atahualpa, for ransom, and before the operation was finished the Spanish walked away with 800 pounds of gold, more than 3,500 pounds of silver and 140 large emeralds as booty as well as "a room full of gold" and "a hut filled twice over with silver" as ransom.

The Spanish occupied Peru for three centuries. Lima was the clearing house for riches shipped from their South American empire to Spain. So much silver and gold was taken from the Andean silver mines that a massive bout of inflation was triggered in European that drastically destabilized the economies there. In Peru, the Spanish left behind many beautiful colonial buildings, but the their brutal exploitation of the Indians sowed many of the problems that remain in Peru today,

The discovery of silver at Potosí greatly increased the value of Bolivia in the eyes of the Spanish and lead to the establishment of Upper Peru (Bolivia) as a separate political entity. "Take no silver from this. It is destined for other owners," an Incan god warned the Incas in an ancient myth when an Incan emperor tried to mine silver from Potosí. The other owners---the Spaniards arrived in 1545 and the coins they minted stimulated commerce in the Americas and later caused a serious bout of inflation.

The Spanish ran Potasi silver mine with thousands of Indian slaves. The mines in Potasi created a kind of mining feudalism that left nothing behind in Bolivia expect buildings. The vast wealth produced by Potosí's silver mines, and later its tin mines, enriched a few people but lead to great misery for the people who worked the mines, often against their will. Today the Potosí region is one the poorest areas of poor Bolivia.

Riches of gold and silver brought over from the New World made Spain the greatest power in Europe during the 16th century. Despite the fact that Aragon and Castile had separate government and Catatonia remained semi-autonomous, Spain (with the monarchy based in Castile) extended its territory into Naples and Sicily in Italy and Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium). But silver from Peru, turned into silver coins called reals, also helped finance ruinous wars and wreck Spain' economy. The peseta and peso are named after a unit of weight used to measure a silver centuries ago.

Silver Mining and Processing

Most silver is locked up in copper, lead, and zinc ore and is extracted during the processing of these metals and from gold deposits. Silver is obtained from ores such as argenite (silver sulfide) and cerargyrite (silver chloride) and silver mines built around veins, varying in thickness from a few inches to a few feet, where silver has been squeezed into fissures of rock underneath the earth's surface.

After it is mined, silver ore is ground into dust and separated from the rock in tanks of foaming water and chemicals, yielding silver in the form of ash grey sludge. Refineries turn the sludge into silver grains, which in turn are heated to 2000̊F creating glowing orange liquid silver. The liquid is poured into molds. As it cools it turns to more of a reddish color. Blisters caused by too much oxygen are then removed. Further processing yields gleaming, 70 pounds ingots the size of bread loaves.

The amalgamation method of refining gold and silver involves exposing crushed ore to mercury, which is attracted to and attaches itself to gold and silver particles. The resulting mercury-gold and mercury-silver amalgamations are separated from the rest of the ore and then heated until the mercury boils away, leaving pure gold or silver. The mercury from this method can very nasty on the environment.

Cupellation is a primitive method of refining gold and silver ore. The ore is heated on a ceramic plate. Some impurities are absorbed; some are burned away, leaving behind the desired precious metal.

The silver mine near the Andean town of Casapalca was of one the world's largest in the 1980s. Inside shafts sunk a mile deep into a 14,000 foot high mountain, about 800 miners mined ten silver veins, each a foot thick, with ten-foot-long pneumatic drills. Outside the mine is snow and ice. At the bottom of the shafts the temperature is a humid 95̊F. Water is sprayed out of hoses to dampen the dust and keep the drill bits cool.╹ [Source: Allen A. Boraiko, National Geographic, September 1981]

About 4,800 kilograms of ore, rock, soil and sand needs to be excavated to produce one kilogram of silver. [Source: Japanese Environmental Ministry]

Silver Producers

Experts estimate that in the past 5,000 years a million tons of silver has been mined, three-fourths of it in the Western Hemisphere and half of it in the past century. If all this silver was made into three-inch thick bricks it would pave a four line highway about 5,000 miles long.

Silver is mined in more than 60 countries. The world's largest silver producers in order of rank are Mexico, Russia, Peru, the United States (Nevada 34 percent and Idaho 14 percent) and Canada. The United States consumes three times as much silver as it next's largest competitor Japan. It is also estimated that in the first 50 years of 20th century over 100,000 tons of silver coins were lost.

Silver Prices

Silver reached its peak ($50.13 per fine ounce) at the Commodities Exchange in New York on January 13, 1980. Thanks to the Hunt brothers of Texas, who tried to corner the market, silver jumped from US$5 an ounce in December 1978 to $35 a year later. People who invested in 1978 and sold their holdings before the market crashed a year later made a 700 percent profit. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s the price for silver was around $7 an ounce.

Silver tripled in price between 2002 and 2006. They reached $13.92 an ounce in April 2006. Prices hikes were spurred by trouble in the Middle East, high oil prices and a weak U.S. dollar. It was the highest price seen since the early 1980s.

“In April 2011, silver prices reached record highs as gold prices were also surging. On April 24, silver spot price soared by more than 5 percent, at one point reaching $49.79 per ounce---a new all-time nominal record. According to the precious metals consultancy group GFMS Ltd, the previous silver price spot record was $49.45, set in 1980. Today’s increases mark the ninth day in a row of gains for silver---the metal’s longest winning run since an 11-day run of gains in March 2008. Silver like gold was “boosted by weakness in the dollar” and higher consumer prices in the United States. [Source: GoldMoney, April 25, 2011

The price of silver was $26.29 an ounce in July 2012. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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