The resistance to corrosion and high temperatures of iridium is so extreme that the material has become almost essential in the manufacture of aircraft engines, automobile catalysts or deep-water pipes.
Its use also extends to spark plugs, medical and electronic devices, and can even be found in watches and compasses in minute quantities.
But it is as tough as it is scarce. This year, the price of the metal grew 131%, even surpassing the increase in bitcoin (around 120%).
Close to US $ 6 thousand an ounce (about R $ 34 thousand per 28 g), the price of iridium is more than three times higher than that of gold, and the prospects of industry analysts are that it will continue to grow.
This upward trend accelerated because there were interruptions in production last year, and the demand for the metal increased, mainly for use in electronic screens, according to data from the Heraeus Group.
The ‘green’ factor
A by-product of platinum and palladium mining, iridium has become the latest precious metal to see a spectacular rise in price due to a shortage of supplies.
But there is another reason: investors project that it will be used to produce hydrogen, an element increasingly sought after as a source of clean energy, replacing fossil fuels.
The increase in the price of iridium is added to that of other metals belonging to the platinum group, such as rhodium and palladium, which also reached historic levels due to the scarcity of supply.
Iridium production was affected in 2020 after the closure of a processing plant managed by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) in South Africa for several months, creating a shortage in supply while demand was rising.
This is relevant considering that South Africa produces between 80% and 85% of the world’s iridium.
About 250,000 ounces of the metal are produced each year, compared with about 10 million ounces of palladium and 8 million ounces of platinum, according to Reuters.
Because it is such a small market, any interruption in production can have a major impact on the price.
And, precisely because of its size, few participate in the purchase and sale of the metal. It is a market dominated by large industrial customers.
Abundant in meteorites
With a silvery white hue and a slight yellow tinge, it is considered an extraterrestrial metal because it is abundant in meteorites and is very rare in the earth’s crust.
Discovered in 1803 among the insoluble impurities of natural platinum, iridium is an element so rare on Earth that its extraction and annual consumption is only about 3 tons.
It is marketed in small quantities that are often vital in niche products, such as temperature-resistant pots used to grow synthetic crystals used in electronic and telecommunications systems.
In terms of demand, last year, 31% were consumed by the electric sector, 26% by the electrochemical sector, 13% by the automotive sector and the rest of several sectors, according to the S&P Global consultancy.
According to Heraeus Precious Metals, one of the world’s largest platinum group metal refineries, demand for iridium is expected to be driven by the development of the 5G smartphone market and other products that use LED lights.
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