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Platinum-group elements

December 19, 2017

The platinum-group elements (PGEs)—platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and osmium—are metals that have similar physical and chemical properties and tend to occur together in nature. PGEs are indispensable to many industrial applications but are mined in only a few places. The availability and accessibility of PGEs could be disrupted by economic, environmental, political, and social events. The United States net import reliance as a percentage of apparent consumption is about 90 percent.

PGEs have many industrial applications. They are used in catalytic converters to reduce carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrous oxide emissions in automobile exhaust. The chemical industry requires platinum or platinum-rhodium alloys to manufacture nitric oxide, which is the raw material used to manufacture explosives, fertilizers, and nitric acid. In the petrochemical industry, platinum-supported catalysts are needed to refine crude oil and to produce aromatic compounds and high-octane gasoline. Alloys of PGEs are exceptionally hard and durable, making them the best known coating for industrial crucibles used in the manufacture of chemicals and synthetic materials. PGEs are used by the glass manufacturing industry in the production of fiberglass and flat-panel and liquid crystal displays. In the electronics industry, PGEs are used in computer hard disks, hybridized integrated circuits, and multilayer ceramic capacitors.

Aside from their industrial applications, PGEs are used in such other fields as health, consumer goods, and finance. Platinum, for example, is used in medical implants, such as pacemakers, and PGEs are used in cancer-fighting drugs. Platinum alloys are an ideal choice for jewelry because of their white color, strength, and resistance to tarnish. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium in the form of coins and bars are also used as investment commodities, and various financial instruments based on the value of these PGEs are traded on major exchanges.

PGEs are among the rarest metals; Earth’s upper crust contains only about 0.0005 part per million (ppm) platinum. Today, the average grade of PGEs in ores that are mined primarily for their PGE concentrations varies from 5 to 15 ppm, although the concentration of PGEs in hand-picked ore specimens may range from tens to hundreds of parts per million.

More than 100 different minerals have one of the PGEs as an essential component. PGE minerals occur as native metals. They also occur as compounds with other transition metals (copper, iron, mercury, nickel, and silver), post-transition metals (bismuth, lead, and tin), metalloids (antimony, arsenic, and tellurium), and nonmetals (selenium and sulfur).

From 1900 to 2011, approximately 14,200 metric tons of PGEs was produced, and roughly 95 percent of that production (13,500 metric tons) took place between 1960 and 2011. The breakdown of production by country shows that, since 1900, about 90 percent of the production came from South Africa and Russia. The secondary supply of platinum, palladium, and rhodium is obtained through the recycling of catalytic converters from end-of-life vehicles, jewelry, and electronic equipment. Recycled platinum, palladium, and rhodium provide a significant proportion of the world’s total supply; these secondary sources are sufficient to close the gap between world mine production and consumption.

Exploration and mining companies report resources of about 104,000 metric tons of PGEs (including minor amounts of gold) in mineral deposits around the world that could be developed. For PGEs, almost all the reported production and identified resources are associated with deposits in three geologic features—the Bushveld Complex, which is a layered mafic-to-ultramafic intrusion in South Africa; the Great Dyke, which is a layered mafic-to-ultramafic intrusion in Zimbabwe; and sill-like intrusions associated with flood basalts in the Noril’sk-Talnakh area of Russia.

The metallic forms of PGEs are generally considered to be inert. PGEs pose a risk to human health only in cases where individuals are occupationally exposed to synthetic PGE compounds, especially workers in precious-metal refineries. In the natural environment, background PGE concentrations are low in water, sediment, soil, and plants. Anthropogenic sources of PGEs in the environment include catalytic converters used in modern automobiles, platinum-based chemotherapy drugs, and smelter emissions.

The abundance of sulfide minerals defines the environmental and geologic characteristics of PGE-enriched magmatic sulfide deposits; those deposits with the highest amount of sulfide minerals could have the highest environmental impact. Acid rock drainage from reef-type and contact-type deposits is unlikely because the ores and their host rocks contain low proportions of sulfide minerals. For some conduit-type orebodies with massive ores, mineral-processing techniques separate and produce concentrates of copper-, iron-, and nickel-bearing sulfide minerals; those with copper and nickel are processed to extract metal, but the iron-sulfide minerals, mainly pyrrhotite, are discarded as waste. This results in waste material with a high acid-generating potential.

The most significant primary source of PGEs in the United States is a deposit in the Stillwater Complex, which is a layered igneous intrusion in Montana. Approximately 305 metric tons of platinum and palladium have been mined from the Stillwater Complex deposit since 1986. Exploration and development drilling indicate that another 2,200 metric tons are present. Mining has progressed to depths of 1,800 meters below the surface, but the bottom of the ore deposit has not been reached; geologic estimates suggest that another 1,000 to 6,200 metric tons of PGEs could be present at depth. In the future, PGEs may be mined from deposits found near the base of the Duluth Complex, which is a group of igneous intrusions in Minnesota.

Publication Year 2017
Title Platinum-group elements
DOI 10.3133/pp1802N
Authors Michael L. Zientek, Patricia J. Loferski, Heather L. Parks, Ruth F. Schulte, Robert R. Seal
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1802
Index ID pp1802N
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center