How Platinum Improves Our World
Within the hierarchy of precious metals, there is only one metal that could arguably stand above gold, and that is platinum.
This is due in large part to the metal’s rarity throughout history. Its earliest known use was on the Casket of Thebes in Ancient Egypt. South American Indigenous populations also used platinum for jewelry.
But platinum’s value goes beyond being a precious metal—its specific properties have made it indispensable to the modern economy, improving both the health and the wealth of the world.
Platinum’s Industrial Applications
Today’s infographic comes to us from the World Platinum Investment Council and outlines specifically how specific platinum’s properties are used in the modern economy.
There are four primary uses of platinum aside from investment demand.
- Renewable Power
Let’s look into all of these cases a little deeper.
Platinum’s versatility in manufacturing has quadrupled its demand since 1980. Its catalytic properties are critical to the production of fertilizers, and more specifically, platinum’s efficiency in converting ammonia to nitric acid paved the way for large-scale fertilizer production.
Around 90% of the nitrogen produced using platinum catalysts is used to make 190 million tonnes of fertilizers each year.
Platinum is a biologically compatible metal because it is both non-toxic and stable. It does not react negatively with or affect body tissues, which makes it an ideal material for medical tools. Platinum’s use in medicine dates back to 1874 for its use in arthroscopic tools. Its stability also makes it ideal for pacemakers and hearing assist devices today.
While non-threatening to healthy cells, platinum compounds known as cisplatin can damage cancer cells and treat testicular, ovarian, lung, bladder, and other cancers. Given these crucial applications, the World Health Organization has put cisplatin on its List of Essential Medicines.
Platinum is a critical material in the fight for cleaner air and in the construction of energy-efficient fiberglass. It is used in catalytic converters in exhaust systems of gas-powered vehicles, reducing the emission of harmful pollutants. In addition, platinum is used in the manufacturing process of high-end glass that improves the heating and cooling efficiency of homes and offices.
4. Renewable Power
Platinum’s catalytic properties make it critical to cleaning up air pollution, producing renewable hydrogen, and unleashing its power in fuel cells. Electrolysis, which can turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, works best when passing an electric current through platinum electrodes.
Fuel cells are set to power a new generation of emission-free vehicles, and platinum membranes are used inside of them as well.
More Than Precious
More than a precious metal, platinum has many applications that make it a critical material for the modern economy in years to come.
What is a Commodity Super Cycle?
The prices of energy, agriculture, livestock and metals tell the story of human development. Learn about the commodity super cycle in this infographic.
Visualizing the Commodity Super Cycle
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the world has seen its population and the need for natural resources boom.
As more people and wealth translate into the demand for global goods, the prices of commodities—such as energy, agriculture, livestock, and metals—have often followed in sync.
This cycle, which tends to coincide with extended periods of industrialization and modernization, helps in telling a story of human development.
Why are Commodity Prices Cyclical?
Commodity prices go through extended periods during which prices are well above or below their long-term price trend. There are two types of swings in commodity prices: upswings and downswings.
Many economists believe that the upswing phase in super cycles results from a lag between unexpected, persistent, and positive trends to support commodity demand with slow-moving supply, such as the building of a new mine or planting a new crop. Eventually, as adequate supply becomes available and demand growth slows, the cycle enters a downswing phase.
While individual commodity groups have their own price patterns, when charted together they form extended periods of price trends known as “Commodity Super Cycles” where there is a recognizable pattern across major commodity groups.
How can a Commodity Super Cycle be Identified?
Commodity super cycles are different from immediate supply disruptions; high or low prices persist over time.
In our above chart, we used data from the Bank of Canada, who leveraged a statistical technique called an asymmetric band pass filter. This is a calculation that can identify the patterns or frequencies of events in sets of data.
Economists at the Bank of Canada employed this technique using their Commodity Price Index (BCPI) to search for evidence of super cycles. This is an index of the spot or transaction prices in U.S. dollars of 26 commodities produced in Canada and sold to world markets.
- Energy: Coal, Oil, Natural Gas
- Metals and Minerals: Gold, Silver, Nickel, Copper, Aluminum, Zinc, Potash, Lead, Iron
- Forestry: Pulp, Lumber, Newsprint
- Agriculture: Potatoes, Cattle, Hogs, Wheat, Barley, Canola, Corn
- Fisheries: Finfish, Shellfish
Using the band pass filter and the BCPI data, the chart indicates that there are four distinct commodity price super cycles since 1899.
The first cycle coincides with the industrialization of the United States in the late 19th century.
The second began with the onset of global rearmament before the Second World War in the 1930s.
The third began with the reindustrialization of Europe and Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
- 1996 – Present:
The fourth began in the mid to late 1990s with the rapid industrialization of China
What Causes Commodity Cycles?
The rapid industrialization and growth of a nation or region are the main drivers of these commodity super cycles.
From the rapid industrialization of America emerging as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century, to the ascent of China at the beginning of the 21st century, these historical periods of growth and industrialization drive new demand for commodities.
Because there is often a lag in supply coming online, prices have nowhere to go but above long-term trend lines. Then, prices cannot subside until supply is overshot, or growth slows down.
Is This the Beginning of a New Super Cycle?
The evidence suggests that human industrialization drives commodity prices into cycles. However, past growth was asymmetric around the world with different countries taking the lion’s share of commodities at different times.
With more and more parts of the world experiencing growth simultaneously, demand for commodities is not isolated to a few nations.
Confined to Earth, we could possibly be entering an era where commodities could perpetually be scarce and valuable, breaking the cycles and giving power to nations with the greatest access to resources.
Each commodity has its own story, but together, they show the arc of human development.
Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective
Gold has been used as money for millennia. People often attribute this to beauty, but there are basic physical properties for why gold is money.
Why Gold is Money
The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.
However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.
Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.
The Periodic Table
The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.
Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:
- Gases and Liquids
Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
- Lanthanides and Actinides
Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
- Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
- Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
- Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.
Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.
Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.
Gold as Money
Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.
Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.
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