W ithin the world of chemistry, global company Johnson Matthey has roots as English and nearly as royal as the British monarchy.
The company was founded in the early 19th century by London gold assayer Percival Norton Johnson, who was also one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the oldest national chemical society in the world, created in 1841.
Johnson had shown early promise as a chemist with the 1812 publication in Philosophical Magazine of “Experiments which prove platina, when combined with gold and silver, to be soluble in nitric acid.” He showed that small quantities of platinum mixed with gold and silver in nitric acid cause pure gold to separate from the solution. Johnson also perfected a method of extracting palladium — part of the platinum group of metals — from gold to improve its colour.
In 1851, Johnson’s company adopted the name Johnson & Matthey when George Matthey joined the business. Today, pared down to simply Johnson Matthey, it is regarded as one of the world’s leading specialty chemicals companies.
As can be seen in this 1960 Chemistry in Canada advertisement, Johnson Matthey & Mallory Limited’s Montreal branch manufactured and distributed platinum laboratory ware. A lustrous, malleable, silver-white metal, platinum is highly resistant to chemical- and temperature-based corrosion. It is also valuable and relatively rare; only a few hundred tonnes are produced annually.
This ad was preceded by a 1950s expansion of the company, which established new sales and production outlets around the globe. Two decades before that, Johnson Matthey capitalized on the discovery of vast platinum mineral deposits in the Rustenburg district of Transvaal, South Africa, patenting the only workable process for extraction and refining platinum group metals from local ores.
Today, South Africa accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s production. Another major source of platinum is Ontario’s Sudbury Basin, also known as the Sudbury Nickel Irruptive, which is the second-largest, as well as the oldest, impact crater on Earth. (Platinum is also abundant on the Moon and in meteorites.)
Today, platinum is still used in lab equipment but is perhaps best known for its catalytic properties. It is used in automotive catalytic converters and in proton exchange membrane fuel cells where it catalyses the reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. It is also important in dentistry equipment, electrical contacts and jewelry.
Johnson Matthey continues to thrive and expand, with operations in 30 countries, including Canada. The company positions itself as a leader in clean air, clean water and low-carbon technologies as well as experts in the application and recycling of precious metals.