For the love of platinum

By Dr. Raquel Alonso-Perez

How much rock does it take to make you happy? Approximately four tons! That’s a piece of rock about the same size as the refrigerator in your house. A pure platinum ring is about 15 grams, and that all comes from the ground. And most of that rock, from that ground, is from South Africa.The Bushveld Igneous Complex, north of Johannesburg, is the source of much of the world’s platinum, palladium, iridium, rhodium; the so called “platinum group elements”. About two billion years ago this intrusion of layered rocks formed from roiling hot magma that came from the mantle and crystallized in place.

The Bushveld Igneous Complex, or BIC for short, is vast; About eight kilometers thick and hundreds of miles wide; all told about 1,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters; that’s a lot of fridges!

Within the BIC are some remarkable rocks, that include the Merensky Reef, named after it’s discoverer, Hans Merensky, and chromitites. Chromitites are rocks made of chromium-rich minerals, and the Merensky Reef is a layered rock containing lots of platinum group elements. In fact, the Merensky Reef is the largest economic resource of these elements in the world!

There is controversy within the scientific community centering on the process that formed the Merensky Reef and chromitites and that, in part, is the reason for our visit here. The platinum group elements are a focus of scientific study because they are crucial to our modern lives, forming parts of the catalytic convertors that clean the exhaust fumes of our cars, or the components of our cell (mobile) phones. For example, many are not aware that platinum is a central component of anti-cancer medication. Jewelry comes a fairly distant second in terms of priority for the platinum mining industry.

We’ve been into quite a few mine pits and down quite a few underground mines on this trip. All of these experiences have given us a greater appreciation of getting the platinum group elements out of the ground. Conditions underground can be confined, with perhaps as little as a yard of total head space, with a mile of rock about you. In the open pits, massive 150 ton loaders are fed by 400 ton diggers, shifting the ore.For all of this work, the platinum industry is struggling.

Next time you go out of your door, and look at the dust and mud on the side of the road, just remember; chances are the particles of platinum come from South Africa!

See pictures below!