Although palladium is considered a precious metal and it is used in jewelry, the most significant applications of palladium are of industrial nature.
Palladium, together with platinum and rhodium, are primary components in autocatalysts that reduce vehicle exhausts emissions of hydro-carbons, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and particulate. Autocatalysts convert most of these emissions into less harmful carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. Autocatalyst is palladium's largest and fastest growing demand sector, accounting for 49% of total palladium demand in 2006.
Demand for palladium in autocatalysts started to increase significantly in the seventies when clean air legislation was introduced in USA and Japan. Many other countries followed this policy since then. Moreover, in the 1990s, palladium demand soared as there was a substitution from platinum to palladium in autocatalysts in the United States. This was mainly due to palladium's relatively lower cost and better performance in autocatalysts. In Europe platinum was more widely used since it is an essential element for more popular diesel cars. In recent years demand for palladium in autocatalysts has also shown a considerable growth in emerging countries that introduced new environmental regulations.
A continue increase of palladium demand was expected due to new emission legislation for new cars. Recent developments in the palladium market, particularly record high prices in 2000 and early 2001, together with technological advances have led to a switch back to platinum. In 2002, palladium demand fell by almost 46% from 2000. Actual use in autocatalysts declined by 50%. Several factors explain this trend.
The fall on demand was first a reaction to high and volatile price in 2000 and 2001. Second, auto companies were successfull in reducing the load of palladium for autocatalysts as they improved emissions systems and advance in engine design and control. Third, the penetration of diesel cars (which use platinum-based catalysts) in Europe climbed to 40 per cent. Fourth, cars manufacturers in North America did still consume palladium in excess, but they drew heavily on their inventories. Fifth, autocatalyst recovery increased by nearly 61% in 2002, much of it due to metal recovery in North America and Europe.
The second largest demand sector for palladium is electronics, which accounted for 15% of total palladium demand in 2006, lower than in 1999 (21%) and stable as compared to 2002. Palladium is used mainly in the production of multi-layer ceramic capacitors (MLCC). These MLCC are used in electrical components for cellular telephones, personal and notebook computers, fax machines and in auto and home electronics.
Electronics industry is also reacting to high palladium prices. Advances in technology are trying to reduce the use of palladium in MLCC. The industry, specially in Japan and North America, has started to use base metals, particularly nickel, as an alternative material for the conductive layers of MLCC. Palladium demand for this application has lost market share to nickel products.
Other electronic applications for palladium are the plating for connectors and leadframes for electronic circuits, as well as hybrid integrated circuits.
In 2002, despite a drop down of palladium prices, global sales of computer remained weak due to reduced economic growth, what contributed to a low demand of palladium.
Palladium is widely used in dental alloys. The popularity of palladium alloys in dentistry is based in the facts that palladium alloys are adaptable and consequently easy to work with, strong and does not tarnish with air. However, recent rising price of palladium has led to a switch to cheaper gold or base metal alloys in this application. Reforms in the healthcare systems in Japan and Germany, have also influenced demand for palladium alloys. Since patients had to pay more or in advance for dental care, they reduced their use of more expensive palladium. As a result, dental laboratories are looking for appropriate substitutes for palladium.
Palladium is extensively used in jewelry. It may be used either on its own of as an element of "white gold". "White gold" is obtained when palladium is added to gold, with or without other elements. The yellow colour of gold fades and the alloy becomes quite white. Palladium is also used in watchmaking.
Palladium process catalysts are used in the production of bulk and specialty chemicals, such as purified telephthalic acid which is used in artificial fibers manufacture.
Palladium is also demanded by the fertilizers industry. It is used in the production of nitric acid for the manufacture of artificial fertilizers