Beyond Jewelry

Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner & Platinum’s Part in the Industrial Revolution

Jewelers aren’t the only ones who have experimented with platinum through the centuries. Platinum’s unique qualities go far beyond its ability to hold diamonds and adorn our wardrobes. In industrial uses, platinum is frequently used to achieve a specific reaction. Platinum has catalytic properties, meaning that it can cause or accelerate a chemical process which is something that we all take for granted today, but actually played a role in revolutionizing manufacturing across many industries.


Unlike copper or iron, platinum is a relative newcomer to the elemental world. Identified only in the 18th century (1720 to be exact), Platinum’s extraordinary ability to affect chemical changes was discovered in the early 19th century by a German chemist, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner. Author P. M. D Collins, author of Platinum Metals Review, recounts Döbereiner’s crucial experiments carried out in the summer of 1823 where Döbereiner “directed a fine jet of hydrogen at the platinum from a distance of 4 cm, so that it was mixed with air before reaching its target.” P. M. D. Collins notes that the platinum became white hot, igniting the hydrogen jet. It was an amazing interaction between the world’s lightest element (hydrogen) and the world’s heaviest (platinum). The first practical application of Döbereiner’s discovery was seen in the manufacturing of a lighter and a lamp. A version of Döbereiner’s lighter was still in use at the beginning of World War I.


One of the most notable applications of platinum’s industrial use was during World War II. During this time, platinum was declared a strategic metal and could only be used for wartime efforts. Platinum is used in the manufacturing process of nitric acid, a principle component of explosive-grade ammonium nitrate.


One of the earliest industrial uses of platinum—and the reason why it was declared a strategic metal during World War II—is the manufacture of nitric acid, a principal component of explosive-grade ammonium nitrate. Nitric acid is also used in fertilizers and the production of nylon and polyurethane, according to Johnson Matthey, one of the world’s largest suppliers of platinum group metals.


Today, platinum is a part of the manufacturing process of many everyday items, including LCD screens, computer hard drives, silicone, dental materials, glass fiber and high octane gasoline. At the intersection of art and science, there is no metal as vital as platinum and the platinum group metals—palladium, rhodium, iridium, osmium and ruthenium.

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