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Palladium: The Commodity.com Guide


What Makes Palladium an Important Commodity for the World's Economy?

Why is Palladium Valuable?

Palladium is a lustrous, silvery-white metallic element. Along with platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, osmium and iridium, it forms a group of six elements known as the platinum group metals (PGMs).

PGMS are extremely rare. According to the United State Geological Survey (USGS), the group makes up only .0005 parts per million of Earth’s crust. The PGMs are known as superior catalysts – substances that help chemical reaction occur more quickly.

English chemist William Hyde Wollaston discovered palladium in 1803 when he mixed platinum with nitric acid and hydrochloric acid and noticed that another element was left behind. The shiny, malleable element soon became a popular metal for jewelry production.

Wollaston William Hyde Jackson via Wikimedia {PD-US} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.
William Hyde Wollaston via Wikimedia {PD-US} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.

However, the advent of modern emission standards for automobiles transformed palladium from a luxury metal into an essential commodity for preventing pollution.

Since 1989, the primary use of palladium has been in catalytic converters for automobiles.

These tube-like structures trap harmful emissions that occur when an engine burns fuel.

Today more than 75% of the 208,000 kilograms of palladium mined annually is used by the auto industry.

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What Are the Characteristics of Palladium?

Although all PGM metals are known for their high melting point and high density, palladium has the lowest melting point and density in the PGM group.

Like the other metals in this group, palladium is a noble metal, which means oxygen does not rust or corrode it. In addition, acids can’t penetrate or damage the metal.

All of these properties, along with its shiny, lustrous appearance make palladium ideal for jewelryHowever, its lower density has made it less desirable than platinum in high-end jewelry production.

Palladium Ring by Joanna Angelett via Wikimedia
Palladium Ring by Joanna Angelett via Wikimedia

One of the most extraordinary characteristics of palladium is its abnormal ability to absorb hydrogen. In fact, palladium can absorb a volume of hydrogen equal to 900 times its own volume.

This property makes the element valuable in the fuel cell and nuclear industries.

How Did the Palladium Industry Evolve?

Although palladium was discovered in the early 19th century,  there were no viable commercial uses for the metal until the 20th century.

The first industrial use for palladium was in developing photographs. However, the rarity and high cost of the metal made this application impractical.

In the 1920s and 1930s, new deposits of the metal were discovered first in South Africa and later in Canada. Soon after, the dental industry began utilizing both platinum and palladium to make alloys for crowns and bridges.

In the 1960s, new research into the catalytic properties of palladium led to the metal’s use in polyester production and fuel cracking.

However, the implementation of stricter automobile emission standards in the 1970s caused demand for the metal to soar. The chemical properties than enabled palladium to absorb carbon monoxide made it essential to the design of catalytic converters.

What Drives the Price of Palladium?

The supply of palladium is concentrated in a handful of countries, while the overwhelming amount of demand comes from one industry (automotive). These factors make palladium a very volatile commodity.

These are the six most important drivers of palladium prices:

  1. Vehicle Demand
  2. Russian and South African Supply
  3. Investment Demand
  4. Price of Substitutes
  5. Inflation and the US Dollar
  6. Recycling

Read our guide to start trading palladium today.

Vehicle Demand

Between a half and three-quarters of all palladium production goes to make catalytic converters for automobiles. As a result, demand for vehicles plays the biggest role in determining palladium prices. 

Catalytic Converter via Frank Derks on Flickr
Catalytic Converter via Frank Derks on Flickr

Diesel-fueled cars use platinum in catalytic converters while gasoline-fueled cars use palladium. Therefore, vehicle demand in the United States and China, where most cars use gasoline, plays a bigger role than in Europe, where there are more diesel-powered vehicles.

China, in particular, accounts for one-third of net palladium demand.

Russian and South African Supply

These two countries account for a combined 75% of the global supply of palladium.  Therefore, supply bottlenecks in either of these nations can have a huge impact on prices.

The Russian company, Nornickel, is the world’s largest supplier of palladium. Political sanctions, new mining regulations and export restrictions are just some of the many factors that could impact supply of palladium coming from Russia.

South Africa supplies nearly as much palladium as Russia. In the past, interruptions to electricity supply and high fuel and construction costs have led to supply disruptions and higher prices.

Investment Demand

As with gold, silver and other precious metals, palladium has garnered interest from the investment community.

Investors can purchase ETFs, bullion and other financial products to gain exposure to the metal. However, the palladium market has been characterized by thin liquidity and large price swings. As large traders enter or exit this market, traders should expect wild price swings.

Palladium Bullion via Money Metals on Flickr
Palladium Bullion via Money Metals on Flickr

Price of Substitutes

As prices for the various PGMs rise and fall, industrial users in the automotive sector could alter their demand for these metals.

Both platinum and rhodium can be used in catalytic converters. If the price of these metals becomes less expensive relative to palladium, then manufacturers could substitute them in production.

On the other hand, if palladium prices drop, then its demand should increase. Diesel catalytic converters can use between 25 and 50% palladium. If prices for palladium become depressed, then new demand could come from the diesel sector.

Inflation and the US Dollar

Investing in palladium is one way to protect against the loss of purchasing power from inflation and a weak US dollar.

Palladium is priced in US dollar and usually exhibits a strong inverse correlation with the dollar. In other words, as the dollar weakens, palladium prices tend to rise. Buyers purchasing palladium in other currencies have more purchasing power when the dollar is weak and less when the dollar is strong. 

Palladium is also a precious metal and, therefore, viewed as an investment. In times of currency devaluation and inflation, traders often turn to precious metals as reliable stores of value.

Recycling

The amount of palladium recycled can have an effect on prices.

Most recycling comes from catalytic converters in automobiles. However, the value of palladium in a vehicle pales in comparison to the value of steel. Therefore, higher steel prices could encourage vehicle recycling and lead to greater palladium recycling. Of course, greater supplies of recycled palladium mean lower prices for the metal.

How is Palladium Produced?

Mining

Palladium is extracted from ore bodies in mines that contain other PGMs.

Miners generally extract PGMs from placer deposits, which are naturally occurring concentrations of heavy mineralsThese deposits accumulate as a result of the effects of gravity on moving particles. These placer deposits are found in rocks such as dunite, chromite, and norite.

Chromite via Wikimedia
Chromite via Wikimedia

Palladium production often takes place as a by-product of producing other metals. For example, in the Russian Norilsk and Canadian Sudbury deposits, miners extract palladium and other PGMs as a by-product of nickel and copper.

However, the Bushveld Complex in South Africa has such large quantities of PGMs that mining them on their own is economically viable. In fact, this region contains more than 90% of the world’s proven reserves of PGMs.

Processing

After PGM ore bodies are extracted, they are processed using froth flotation techniques. Machines crush the rocks and immerse them in tanks with chemicals. This allows separation of the valuable PGMs from clay and other worthless rocks.

Flotation Cell via Dhatfield on Wikipedia
Flotation Cell via Dhatfield on Wikipedia

Recycling

Recycling scrap metal also provides a portion of the annual supply of palladium. According to the USGS, recyclers recover about 125,000 kilograms of platinum, palladium and rhodium annually, including 56,000 kilograms from automobile catalytic converters.

How Rare Is Palladium?

The mass fraction of a metal found in the earth’s crust is an accurate barometer of how rare a metal is. By this measure, PMGs, excluding platinum and osmium, are exceedingly rare:

MetalParts per billion in earth’s crust
Gold4
Silver75
Platinum5
Osmium1.5
Other PGMsLess than 1

In fact, one analyst estimates that all the palladium that has ever been mined would fit in a typical SUBWAY restaurant.

map to show the Biggest Palladium Producing Countries (1)

Top 5 Palladium Producing Countries

RankFlagCountryAnnual Production (kilograms)
#1Flag of RussiaRussia82,000
#2Flag of South AfricaSouth Africa73,000
#3Flag of CanadaCanada23,000
#4Flag of USAUnited States13,200
#5Flag of ZimbabweZimbabwe10,000

Which Countries Have the Largest PGM Reserves?

PGM reserves are a measure of the quantity of economically minable metals in the ground.  South Africa has more than 90% of Earth’s PGM reserves.

However, mining is an expensive endeavor, and, ultimately, the price of the metals determines whether it is feasible to mine them.

Top 5 PGM Reserves

RankFlagCountryReserves (Kilograms)
#1Flag of South AfricaSouth Africa63,000,000
#2Flag of ZimbabweZimbabwe1,200,000
#3Flag of RussiaRussia1,100,000
#4Flag of USAUnited States900,000
#5Flag of CanadaCanada310,000

Most of the industrial demand for palladium occurred after the 1970s when air quality laws required catalytic converters on automobiles. However, other industries also depend on the supply of the rare metal.

Top 5 Uses of Palladium

UseDescription
Catalytic Converters

catalytic converter
Palladium’s remarkable chemical properties make it integral to the production of catalytic converters. The metal can trap carbon and oxidize it before it is emitted into the air as pollution.
Electronics

MLCC
Multi-layer ceramic capacitors (MLCC) help control the flow of current in circuits. Palladium or palladium and silver alloys are used in constructing MLCCs. Hybrid integrated circuits and plating materials also use palladium.
Dental Industry

tooth
Alloys of palladium with gold, silver, copper or zinc can be used to make dental inlays, crowns and bridges.
Miscellaneous Industrial

coins
A variety of products and industries rely on the unusual physical and chemical properties of palladium:

Coins
Ethanol fuel production
Fuel cells
Medicine
Oil refining
Photography
Polyester production
Water treatment
Private Investors

palladium shell
Individuals and investment funds purchase palladium to protect their portfolios against losses from inflation and market crises. Investors purchase bullion, coins and funds that invest in the metal.

Further Reading

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