We see the word palladium on jewelry store signs, on websites that offer for you to sell your jewelry, and we hear it on TV and the radio. We assume it’s got something to do with jewelry or precious metals, but what the heck is it, really?
Palladium is in the same family of metals as platinum, called (appropriately) platinum group metals (or PGMs). Other PGMs are rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, osmium, and, of course, platinum. All these metals share certain properties, with palladium being the least dense of all the metals in the group. Palladium also has the lowest melting point.
Palladium was discovered in 1803 as crude palladium ore. It’s “discoverer” was William Hyde Wollaston who performed chemical processes to the ore to extract the palladium metal. He named it Palladium after 2 Pallas, an asteroid that was discovered a few years prior. Pallas was a figure in Greek mythology who was killed accidentally by Athena. Athena felt so guilty that she created a “palladium,” a wooden image of Pallas and took on Pallas’ name.
Wollaston was a brilliant chemist who did important work in optical theory and electricity. He is also very well-known for the processing of palladium ore mentioned above – it involved dissolving the ore, neutralizing the solution, and then adding certain chemicals to produce the desired effect.
What resulted was palladium, a silvery-white metal that is lustrous. It is rare, but it is used in many ways. It’s main use is in automobiles – it is a key component of a catalytic converter. This makes palladium a very useful “green substance”, in a way, because the catalytic converter or a car is what converts the harmful gas emissions of cars into less harmful gases.
Palladium is also used in the manufacturing on SED/OLED/LCD television sets, in dentistry, and in cold fusion technology. None of those are the reasons we’ve been seeing this word lately. Palladium is also used to make jewelry, and has been since 1939. For a long time palladium was mainly used as an alloy to help make white gold – it has a natural whitish color that makes it so that rhodium plating isn’t necessary. Since 2004, when gold and platinum prices were extra high, jewelers (especially in China) have been making palladium jewelry.
Palladium leaf is also used in illuminating manuscripts. Silver leaf is not great to use because it tarnishes so quickly. Aluminum isn’t great either, because it’s really hard to work with and does not produce the same type of result. Today, palladium leaf is preferred only second to gold leaf in the art of manuscript illumination.
Companies are now buying used palladium, and that is both helpful to keep down mining, which is extremely environmentally destructive. That truly does make the palladium in a catalytic converter a “green” occurrence, as the recovered and recycled palladium can be reused in the increasingly more efficient production of catalytic converters.
As for palladium jewelry, it has the look of platinum at less cost, making it a smart choice for tough economic times.