Molecular Monday: Platinum Group Metals

Welcome to Molecular Mondays! Every other Monday, we examine the atoms and molecules that serve as the building blocks of our universe, both in reality and in science fiction. Today, we turn our attention to:

THE PLATINUM GROUP METALS

Not all atoms are created equal. Some have super powers.

Jy03 Awesome AtomsPictured above are the platinum group metals: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and of course platinum. All six can be found clustered together on the periodic table of the elements.

Jy03 Awesome Periodic Table

Why are the platinum group metals (or P.G.M.s) so special? Here are some of the reasons:

  • P.G.M.s have excellent catalytic properties, making them an important component in catalytic converters.
  • P.G.M.s also have excellent electrical properties, which we take advantage of in nearly all modern electronics.
  • Most of the P.G.M.s are highly resistant to oxidation, even at high temperatures, making them useful for all sorts of industrial applications.
  • P.G.M.s and P.G.M. alloys make great jewelry because they don’t tarnish easily.

Inconveniently, most of the platinum group metals on Earth sank into the planet’s core while the planet was still forming. The small quantities we have access to, which were for the most part seeded by meteor impacts after Earth’s crust had solidified, can be hard to find and difficult to extract.

How difficult? So difficult that some business people say it would be easier to go into space and try to mine this stuff from asteroids.

No seriously, there are actual businesses that want to do that. Some are already taking the first preliminary steps to figure out how. It’s one of the reasons the American space program became suddenly interested in asteroid capture missions a few years back.

On today’s market, one troy ounce of a platinum group metal (take your pick; this is true for all of them) can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Our increasingly high-tech society depends upon this stuff, and sooner or later we will run out of places to find it here on Earth.

Maybe… just maybe… the search for platinum group metals will be enough to motivate investing serious money in space exploration. Just something futurists and Sci-Fi writers may want to think about.

Links

Asteroid Mining from Astronomy Source.

Properties of Platinum Group Metals from Johnson Matthey: Precious Metals Management.

The Evolution of NASA’s Ambitious Asteroid-Capture Mission from Space.com.

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Today’s post is part of asteroid belt month for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System. Click here for more about this series.

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