The story of Japanese researchers who were able to combine rhodium and silver in a way to make an artificial palladium alloy “with nanotechnology” has been making the rounds this week as a new wrinkle in the medieval practice of alchemy.
However, I see it a bit differently. It seems to me more like a brilliant stroke of geo-economic politics.
This past Summer there was a rather significant imbroglio between China and Japan in which it was reported that China was suspending delivery of rare earth minerals to Japan over a fishing boat incident. (The issue of China’s current stranglehold on rare earths I covered myself here last Spring.)
Whatever the true story is on this Japan/China incident, ever since Japan has been looking into finding new sources of rare earths. It’s not like these rare earth minerals don’t exist anywhere else, it’s just that the rest of the world has stopped mining for them. In fact, as recently as the 1980s, the US dominated production.
While palladium is not strictly speaking a rare earth mineral, but rather a chemical element and belongs to the platinum group of metals, it is quite rare and in high demand from the electronics industry. So being able to synthesize palladium from the elements of rhodium and silver could conceivably make Japan less dependent on its sources for this element.
Geo-economic politics aside, the claims of this research are quite impressive, although some circles are already expressing skepticism over the results.
While one of the charges is that Japanese academics are typically quick to patent anything, even if it has questionable commercial applications, I imagine the context of the rare earth squeeze made the sound of trumpeting a new way to make palladium too attractive to pass up.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.