Palladium does not immediately replace anything in industry

Scientists have long been interested in one precious metal. Palladium. They don’t want to invest in it. They want to replace him and deprive him of his price. But Palladium continues to shock the scientific community when it recently broke down another promising technology to replace it, writes Josef Tuček, a scientific journalist.

Palladium is rather rarely sold in the form of investment ingots or coins. Investments in securities linked to this metal are much more common. Its price in recent years has exceeded the price of gold on average. It is used in jewelry and dental fillings, but the largest customers of palladium are the automotive and chemical industries.

It is mostly mined in Siberia and South Africa. It acts as a catalyst. The school definition says that it is called a substance that influences the course of a chemical reaction and at the same time emerges unchanged. The simpler assessment is that the world cannot do without palladium at the moment.

Necessary for drug synthesis

In addition to platinum and rhodium, palladium is part of the exhaust gas catalyst in cars, a device that removes most harmful emissions from the exhaust gases. In the chemical industry, in turn, it allows the formation of bonds between carbon atoms in chemical reactions. This produces organic compounds, both simple and as complex as drugs.

“For every drug we make, we need a palladium-like reaction at some stage in production,” said Per-Ola Norrby, a professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and a researcher at pharmaceutical giant Astra Zeneca, for an editorial in the scientific journal Nature.

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Finding a replacement

Considering how necessary and expensive palladium is, it is not surprising that researchers are trying to replace it with something cheaper. Iron, nickel or other metal, or a completely non-metallic catalyst. They seemed to have it several times.

Last year, Chinese researchers at Hefei University of Technology reported in the journal Nature Catalysis that the laboratory had discovered a way to perform one important organic reaction without palladium using a catalyst based on organic amine compounds.

The chemical and industrial worlds were enthusiastic but cautious. Researchers around the world began to test the process – and somehow it didn’t work out. They finally found out.

Chinese scientists were careful not to let any external pollution get into their reactions. But they did not realize that the amine catalyst they used was produced by a palladium reaction, and traces of it remained in the substance. And that was enough to influence the resulting reaction. So the researchers did not replace palladium at all. They got into laboratory reactions in another chemical.

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Chinese scientists eventually withdrew their article – so they marked it as invalid, and researchers are still available to learn from it. Which they do, because they still analyze the progress in professional periodicals.

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Insidious contamination

Nobody laughs at the mentioned Chinese researchers, unfortunately this can happen. And something similar has even happened several times with palladium. For example, in 2003, researchers at King’s College London “discovered” a way to catalyze reactions in organic chemistry, not with palladium, but with copper compounds under the influence of microwave radiation.

It worked great for them, it looked like a huge success. Until the research team moved from London to the University of Storrs in Connecticut, USA. And as if when he died, the reaction stopped working. After months of research, the researchers found and described that one of the substances from the British supplier used in the reactions was contaminated with a small amount of palladium. In America, researchers bought a local chemical that did not contain palladium, and the “miracle” reaction stopped.

Something similar happened at the University of Tampere in Finland in 2008, and it also took time for other scientists to describe that unwanted palladium also penetrated the reaction, which used iron as a catalyst, and “did” the necessary work.

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Reassuring investors?

The examples are a warning to scientists because they show how insidious they can ruin their work. On the contrary, perhaps they can reassure palladium investors – there is really no substitute for this metal at the moment, so they will keep a good price. That is, until scientists find something better. It could be tomorrow, in a year, or maybe never. The world is full of uncertainties.

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