Let’s talk about Osmium

Osmium – the hardest of the eight precious metals, the one with the highest density of all metallic elements on earth, and with an annual production of just 350kg also the rarest of them all. Why is it we aren’t hearing about it more?

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While doing research for a paper I presented at the IPMI’s recent seminar in Budapest (Hungary) earlier this month, the first apparent issue was: is Osmium a precious metal in the first place? It certainly checks some of the boxes – precious metals, generally speaking, are very conductive, but another criteria is that they do not oxidize in normal atmosphere and temperature. Osmium is known to oxidize in contact with air, and to form Osmium tetroxide which is highly poisonous on top of this embarrassing effect. It also has a strong odor. Which is why Os used to live on the fringes of the precious metals world, used to harden alloys (such as in golden fountain pen tips), as a contrast agent for tissue samples in scanning electron microscopy and a few others. Osmium, then, is a bit like Pluto, formerly known as “Planet Pluto”. It hangs around with the rest of the gang but isn’t really a member of the club. Or is it?

Just when I was beginning to regret having taken on this topic, the story took a dramatic turn. I came across the “Osmium Institut zur Inverkehrbringung und Zertifizierung von Osmium GmbH” (Institute for the distribution and certification of Osmium Ltd). Let’s call them OSI, if you don’t mind, although the acronym had a different connotation in the past. The company, with head office in Germany, developed a process to crystallize osmium, rendering it not only completely harmless but also quite beautiful. The crystals are already being used in the production of upscale jewelry and wrist watches, and they have been produced as 1 ounce discs for the collector’s and investment market.

While osmium crystals sparkle almost like diamonds, they cannot be industrially grown and are much rarer in quantity. Ingo Wolf, general manager of OSI, explained: “To mine a single ounce of osmium, 10,000 tons of metal ore, usually platinum ore, are required. Concentrations have been declining for years and there will be a point in the foreseeable future where we simply run out of osmium because of this”. If and when this happens,  the increased use of osmium in jewelry applications would lead to even higher rarity of the metal.

The caveat? Making the crystals is expensive, and the yield is low. While an ounce of “regular” osmium powder trades at around US$ 425 / ozt in today’s market, the crystals sell for around EUR 850 / g (approx. US$ 30,000 / ozt). This elevates them to a new product which has found its own market, much like diamonds consist of carbon.

Will osmium become a rare commodity for investors? That would require a market, and it remains to be seen if one will develop. With lessons to be learned from the fate of the diamond and the Bitcoin markets, there should certainly be room for a rare tangible asset that cannot be artificially reproduced.

Disclaimer: being a curious person, and passionate about technology metals, I have agreed to assist OSI with exploring business models for osmium investments since the conference. So expect to hear more once new milestones have been reached.