If we talk about precious metals, it is inevitable that we will mention silver. After all, it is the most famous one next to gold that is commonly used in jewelry-making. You might even have one or two pieces of silver jewelry yourself.
Silver is one of the best-known elements. But aside from being used to create jewelry, you may have also heard about it being used in various fields and industries. Does the word ‘silverware’ ring a bell to you? How about coins? Or batteries? Or mirrors?
You might have noticed by now how versatile silver is. In fact, you actually encounter silver-laced objects in your everyday life even without you noticing it. That’s how commonly used it is, not just today but even in the past.
The History of Silver
Many of the elements best known to us today were discovered to be already in use by humans even during prehistoric times. Yes, silver may have already been discovered at the same time dinosaurs roamed the earth. After all, it is one of the so-called ‘Seven Metals of Antiquity’ that were discovered by humans the earliest, alongside copper, gold, tin, iron, mercury, and lead.
As a result of this, it is impossible to pinpoint who discovered silver and when. But based on the archaeological artifacts discovered so far, silver has already been mined and smelted in as early as 4000 BC in Greece and Anatolia, which is now present-day Turkey. Other silver artifacts were also discovered in Kish, which is an ancient Sumerian city, that dates back to around 3000 BC.
Because of these artifacts and evidence of smelting, we now know that people back then already knew some processes involving the extraction of silver, since it doesn’t form in a natural state and must be acquired from ores. The method of doing that in ancient times is referred to as ‘cupellation,’ where they subject the ore or deposit to heat, blow on it, and the heated ore will react with air and the base metals will detach itself from silver.
It was in 1200 BC that silver was almost mainly produced in Greece, particularly in the Laurium mines. After all, it was used by the Greeks for their coins and there was great demand for it in their region, compared to the rest of Europe. Later, Spain became the major producer because they used silver for trade with Asian countries and to provide it for the Roman Empire that had an increased demand for it.
The turning point of the world when it comes to this metal would have to be when the conquerors from Europe came to the Americas and discovered the large amounts of silver in the New World, particularly in 1492. As a result, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru became the biggest producers of silver, providing around 85% of the total amount of silver produced in the world during that period.
Other countries followed suit and they also began mining for silver. No longer was silver produced mostly in Europe and the Americas; mining for silver reached as far as Japan and Australia. Because of it, as much as 190 million ounces of silver were being produced worldwide every year from the 1900s and for the next twenty years.
On top of that, new mining techniques and equipment are being discovered over the years and these advancements also made it much easier and faster for people to separate the silver from its ores and deposits. In fact, 886 million ounces of silver were said to have been produced worldwide in 2016 alone.
Properties of Silver
Silver is one of the metals that is easily identifiable by anyone. This is largely in part due to its shine and color. Add the fact that it is cheaper than other precious metals, such as gold, and you can probably understand why there is a great demand for it.
However, it’s not simply the luster, color, or price that makes it such an in-demand material. Its other properties are also noteworthy and are used in various industries, not just in the production of silverware and jewelry.
You might recall that silver is the 47th element found in the periodic table. It is symbolized by ‘Ag’, which is taken from the Latin word ‘Argentum’ that also has origins in Greek language and literally means “shiny.” The word ‘silver,’ on the other hand, is derived from ‘seolfor,’ which is an Anglo-Saxon word.
What makes silver easily identifiable is its color and shine. Combine its whitish color with its lustrous shine and it will attract the eye of anyone who sees it. In fact, this property of silver is so attractive and popular that people even imitate this brilliant white color using other metals. This shine is very reflective that’s why it is also incorporated in the production of mirrors.
Malleability is also one of the best characteristics of silver and this makes it ideal for bending or forming into different shapes. Alongside its malleability is its ductility, which allows this metal to be formed into very fine sheets. Silver is also a soft metal that is soluble in different liquids. It is also very dense at the same time and this makes it hard for anyone to produce counterfeit high-value silver items, such as coins.
Silver is known as a noble transition element, which makes it react less to different chemicals, save for hot sulfuric acid that is concentrated and nitric acid. However, it is also a catalyst that is known to produce ethylene oxide by converting it from ethylene. This metal is also quite resistant to oxidation and will not react to the air itself but only to the hydrogen sulfide available. Corrosion will also not be a problem for it.
Despite its resistance to oxidation and corrosion, silver is known to tarnish when it comes into contact with sulfur compounds present in water or air. When it does, a layer of black sulfide forms on its surface. To prevent this, a small amount of Germanium is now added to silver alloys.
When it comes to coming in contact with electricity and heat, silver is an amazing conductor. In fact, its conductivity is the highest among all metals. This makes it an ideal component of electrical circuits, connectors, and other similar parts.
As previously mentioned, silver is not found on its own but on deposits and ores. You can usually find silver together with zinc, copper, and lead in these ores or deposits. This is why they need to be smelted to separate the different metals.
Silver has other properties that are not included in our list, since what we mentioned are the most important ones you need to be familiar with.
How Different Industries Require the Use of Silver
Silver is more than just cutlery, coins, and jewelry. We cannot emphasize that enough. Various fields and industries have also benefited from their use of silver. These three in particular are known to be large consumers of this particular metal:
- Medicine and Healthcare
Did you know that silver can fight bacteria because it is also anti-microbial? Its ions are capable of breaking down the bacteria’s cell walls and prevent microbes from reproducing, without harming the cells of humans and animals alike.
Aside from these, silver also acts as a purifier due to the release of silver ions that can stop the growth of germs when silver comes into contact with water. It can also preserve liquids well and keep them fresh, that’s why bottles and other containers coated with silver are used by people who want to store liquids for a long time. Even NASA does this.
Silver can also prevent various illnesses and diseases and even speed up healing. This is why medical professionals use dressings and sutures that contain some traces of it. In the past, silver in colloidal form was even prescribed as medicine taken with the use of injections or via direct application on the skin, or a small amount of it is mixed with various medications prior to the discovery and production of penicillin.
However, it’s not advisable to ingest pure silver as medicine. If you do, expect your skin to have a bluish color. You don’t want that to happen.
You might not know this but silver is commonly used in various fields that use photographic film. This refers not only to casual photography, particularly involving film cameras, but also in radiography, such as in x-rays and MRI.
Remember how film cameras are the norm before the invention of digital photography? You might be surprised to know that silver played a major role in making photography much more accessible to everyone. This was due to the discovery of the so-called ‘silver gelatin process’ that allowed photographers to just store their plates for later processing in the darkroom, instead of rushing to process their photos immediately after clicking the shutter button.
Silver nitrate was the primary component used in photography from the late 1800s up to the mid-1900s. Over the years, other solutions will be used for photography but all of them will still include this metal, due to the silver content darkening after it gets exposed to light, thus creating the black or dark portions of a monochromatic image.
Even photographs taken and used in the medical industry use silver. Radiographs, x-rays, CT scans, MRI films, and mammography films, all incorporate this metal. Nowadays, the medical industry is even the one that consumes a lot more silver in the field of photography in general.
- Photovoltaic or Solar Energy
From our earlier discussion, you can see how silver is sensitive when light is involved. This characteristic is not only great for monochrome photography but also where solar energy is involved. Because of its conductivity, it is an effective component of photovoltaic cells that produce electricity using light coming from the sun.
Green Technology and Silver
The ‘green revolution’ is here. You might have noticed various businesses, and even households, now turning to more eco-friendly options whenever they can because of the benefits, especially in terms of saving money. At the forefront of this is the development of energy-efficient equipment that are considered photovoltaics, namely solar energy equipment.
Photovoltaic equipment, in general, are becoming much more affordable now and more people are having them installed in their homes and buildings to save on electricity costs. The demand for it is still quite high, and even expected to continuously increase for some time. This translates to an increased demand for silver as well, since this metal is an important component of photovoltaics.
Various governments also recognize the benefits of photovoltaics, that’s why they promote the use of equipment that has them to their citizens. Some even give incentives, such as tax breaks, to people who use these eco-friendly products. This entices people to use them, which again drives demand. If you’re building a new home in California, you’ll also soon be required to install solar panels on it. If you’re not living in California, you can still talk with the construction contractor to have them built onto your house.
As time passes, even more technological advancements are incorporating the use of photovoltaics. This industry is booming now and alongside it is the need for more silver. Photovoltaics even use much more silver now compared to the amount used in the field of photography, which was not the case before. It is even forecasted that this high demand would continue sometime until the mid-2020s.
The Anticipated Change in the Use of Silver in Solar
Experts believe that after the great demand on solar energy equipment, a sharp decline on the demand for it will occur. This is mainly due to the continuous development of more efficient modules and even solar cells that both require less silver.
Aside from that, thrifting, or further technological advancements, will affect the production of silver. Thrifting in this industry aims to cut costs while still being capable of producing electricity in specific amounts, and silver is a deterrent to this because of its price. As such, people are more actively coming up with ways to use less silver on photovoltaics to save on costs, reducing the demand and price for it.
The current demand for the use of photovoltaics will also affect the use of silver in the future. It may be at its peak at present but once the majority of that demand is met, there will be less customers in the future who will require it. As a result, the demand for silver will also decline.
And while silver is still the primary metal of choice in photovoltaic cells, possible alternatives that are way cheaper than silver are being constantly tested out. The use of such metals, particularly aluminum and copper, in photovoltaics is promising despite being less reliable than silver. These metals are projected to eventually take a large share of the market and will result in a less demand for silver, though it will not completely eradicate its use.