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Why are thieves taking catalytic converters? It’s all about the metal

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:50:57 PM
Modified: 7/31/2021 9:50:57 PM

The aftermarket value for catalytic converters comes from the minuscule amounts of precious metals contained within, which can be extracted from the used parts.

The three metals used in catalytic converters — rhodium, platinum and palladium — are part of a category known as platinum group metals, or PGMs, which are known for their catalytic properties. That means they increase the speed of chemical reactions — in this case, cleaning vehicle emissions — without their own chemical structure changing.

PGMs do not react easily with oxygen and are resistant to corrosion, according to New Age Metals. Because of those properties, the metals are popular in dentistry. Palladium and platinum are frequently used in bridges, crowns and fillings, while the highly reflective — but much more expensive — rhodium is used to plate dental mirrors.

That reflectivity also makes PGMs popular as plating for jewelry and musical instruments.

The rarest and most valuable of the metals is rhodium, which was valued around $650 per ounce in 2016 but steadily climbed to around $3,000 per ounce by the end of 2019, according to Over the course of 2020 the value shot up drastically, reaching a high of $29,000 per ounce by April 2021. It has since dropped to about $18,000 an ounce.

By comparison, palladium saw an increase from $500 per ounce in 2016 to just under $3,000 per ounce today. Platinum barely increased, staying around $1,000 per ounce over the last five years, reported.

There are several reasons for the big price spikes in rhodium, including that it is the rarest of the platinum metals, according to Live Science. It’s also hard to mine; rhodium is a byproduct of platinum or palladium mining and comes mixed with other metals, making extraction more difficult.

Around 80% of the world’s rhodium comes from South African mines, which can reach up to 2.4 miles deep, meaning it can take three days to transport the metal from the mines, Bloomberg reported. The mines are also dangerous, killing 81 South African miners in 2018 alone, Reuters reported.

The difficulties of extracting rhodium and other precious metals from South African mines increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the government ordered they operate at 50% capacity, according to Reuters.

Palladium is also difficult to mine and often found in South African mines, but it’s more common than rhodium. A single metals producer company in Russia is responsible for the majority of the world’s palladium, according to Reuters. It can also be found in South Africa, parts of Canada and even southern Montana.

With the increasing rarity of precious metals, as well as the steep cost, scientists are looking into substitutions for rhodium and palladium for catalytic converters, New Age Metals reported.

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