The platinum-group metals (abbreviated as the PGMs; alternatively, the platinoids, platinides, platidises, platinum group, platinum metals, platinum family or platinum-group elements (PGEs)) are six precious metallic elements clustered together in the periodic table. These elements are all transition metals in the d-block (groups 8, 9, and 10, periods 5 and 6).
The six platinum-group metals are ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum. They have similar physical and chemical properties and tend to occur together in the same mineral deposits. However they can be further subdivided into the iridium-group platinum-group elements (IPGEs: Os, Ir, Ru) and the palladium-group platinum-group elements (PPGEs: Rh, Pt, Pd) based on their behaviour in geological systems.
Naturally occurring platinum and platinum-rich alloys have been known by pre-Columbian Americans for many years. Though the metal was used by pre-Columbian peoples, the first European reference to platinum appears in 1557 in the writings of the Italian humanist Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558) as a description of a mysterious metal found in Central American mines between Darién (Panama) and Mexico (“up until now impossible to melt by any of the Spanish arts”).
The Spaniards named the metal platina (“little silver”) when they first encountered it in Colombia. They regarded platinum as an unwanted impurity in the silver they were mining.
As of 1996, the largest applications of platinum metals were, in millions of troy ounces/year: Pd for autocatalysts (4470), Pt for jewelry (2370), Pd for electronics (2070), Pt for autocatalysts (1830), Pd for dental (1230), Rh for autocatalysts (490), and Pd for chemical reagents (230).
The platinum metals have many useful catalytic properties. They are highly resistant to wear and tarnish, making platinum, in particular, well suited for fine jewelry. Other distinctive properties include resistance to chemical attack, excellent high-temperature characteristics, and stable electrical properties. All these properties have been exploited for industrial applications.
Sperrylite (platinum arsenide, PtAs2) ore is a major source of this metal. A naturally occurring platinum-iridium alloy, platiniridium, is found in the mineral cooperite (platinum sulfide, PtS). Platinum in a native state, often accompanied by small amounts of other platinum metals, is found in alluvial and placer deposits in Colombia, Ontario, the Ural Mountains, and in certain western American states. Platinum is also produced commercially as a by-product of nickel ore processing. The huge quantities of nickel ore processed makes up for the fact that platinum makes up only two parts per million of the ore. South Africa, with vast platinum ore deposits in the Merensky Reef of the Bushveld complex, is the world’s largest producer of platinum, followed by Russia. Platinum and palladium are also mined commercially from the Stillwater igneous complex in Montana, USA.
Osmiridium is a naturally occurring alloy of iridium and osmium found in platinum-bearing river sands in the Ural Mountains and in North and South America. Trace amounts of osmium also exist in nickel-bearing ores found in the Sudbury, Ontario region along with other platinum group metals. Even though the quantity of platinum metals found in these ores is small, the large volume of nickel ores processed makes commercial recovery possible.
Metallic iridium is found with platinum and other platinum group metals in alluvial deposits. Naturally occurring iridium alloys include osmiridium and iridosmine, both of which are mixtures of iridium and osmium. It is recovered commercially as a by-product from nickel mining and processing.
Ruthenium is generally found in ores with the other platinum group metals in the Ural Mountains and in North and South America. Small but commercially important quantities are also found in pentlandite extracted from Sudbury, Ontario and in pyroxenite deposits in South Africa.
The industrial extraction of rhodium is complex, because it occurs in ores mixed with other metals such as palladium, silver, platinum, and gold. It is found in platinum ores and obtained free as a white inert metal which is very difficult to fuse. Principal sources of this element are located in river sands of the Ural Mountains, in North and South America and also in the copper-nickel sulfide mining area of the Sudbury Basin region. Although the quantity at Sudbury is very small, the large amount of nickel ore processed makes rhodium recovery cost effective. However, the annual world production in 2003 of this element is only 7 or 8 tons and there are very few rhodium minerals.
Palladium is found as a free metal and alloyed with platinum and gold with platinum group metals in placer deposits of the Ural Mountains of Eurasia, Australia, Ethiopia, South and North America. However it is commercially produced from nickel-copper deposits found in South Africa and Ontario, Canada. The huge volume of nickel-copper ore processed makes this extraction profitable in spite of its low concentration in these ores.