Silver Facts, History, Properties & Uses
Silver is a precious metal that has been a valuable commodity around the world for thousands of years. Historically it was the key to wealth and was mined and traded for its reflective surface and pliability. These days silver is far more than just a jewelry product: the element is an essential component in manufacturing everything from electronic gadgets to water pipes to cleaning products.
Facts about Silver
Chemical facts about silver
- On the periodic table, silver’s atomic number is 47.
- Silver’s atomic symbol is Ag, which comes from “argentums”, the Latin word for silver.
- Silver is solid at room temperature. The melting point of silver is 1,763.2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 961.78 degrees Celsius. Its boiling point is an incredible 3,924 Fahrenheit, or 2,162 Celsius.
- Silver has 66 isotopes, the most common of which are Ag-107 and Ag-109.
History of silver
- People have been mining silver for over 5000 years: the first evidence of silver mines was found in Turkey and Greece and dates to 3000 B.C.E.
- Silver has been used in jewelry for thousands of years. An archaeological dig in Israel found a treasure trove of objects that included five silver hoop earrings dating back 3200 years.
- South and Latin America were rich in silver, and much was brough back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.
- The Silver Institute estimated that 85% of silver produced worldwide was mined between 1500 and 1800 in Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico.
Uses of Silver
Jewelry & Silverware
Most people, when they think of silver, automatically think of jewelry and other valuables. The metal is naturally reflective and brilliant, making it an obvious choice for decoration and display. Silver is much softer than other metals and therefore easy to bend and mold into fine and delicate shapes. In fact, the metal is so soft that it must be alloyed with other metals like copper to help it keep its form.
Silver is less valuable than gold, making it a popular choice for more commonly used household items like dining ware. Historically, silver platters and plates would accompany silver knives and forks on the dinner table. More expensive items would be made of solid silver, while cheaper alternatives were made from a base metal like copper or nickel and plated with silver and decorated with etchings or patterns.
Even with the widespread popularity of silver jewelry, the most common use of silver is in electronics manufacturing. Silver conducts heat and electricity extremely well, making it the ideal material for electrical components. This means small amounts of silver can be found in practically anything electronic you might own, including microwaves, TVs, watches, even regular household light switches.
Silver mined for electronics must be 99.99% pure to be effective. This pure silver is dissolved in nitric acid to create silver nitrate powder. This can be turned into a silver paste that is used in building conductive pathways on circuit boards or made into an oxide or an alloy to create batteries. When paired with a superconductor, silver is even used to generate the magnetic energy needed to turn over motors or power levitation trains.
Another use of silver paste is in creating solar panels, making silver an essential element in driving the future of the renewable energy industry. Photovoltaic panels are printed with lines of silver paste across their surfaces. When the sun hits the cell, the electric current it produces is captured by these silver paste highways and carried along the panel to the generator or battery. Silver’s reflectivity gives it a bonus in solar energy generation: sunlight can bounce off the shiny surface of the silver paste and back onto the photovoltaic cells, helping the panels convert as much light into energy as possible.
Silver is also used in nuclear energy production. Nuclear power plants generate power through the reactions of neutrons in their nuclear cores. Silver control rods in the reactors can capture neutrons, reducing the severity of the reactions. By inserting and removing these silver control rods, nuclear scientists can modulate the reactions and control the energy produced.
We’ve already talked about how silver’s conductivity is helpful in producing electronics and energy systems, but it doesn’t stop there. Silver’s other properties make it an essential part in metal and chemical production. For example, silver has a high tensile strength, making it the perfect material for joining metal together. Scrap silver is used in soldering together metal parts used in machinery, air conditioning units, plumbing materials, and more. Silver is also antibacterial and non-toxic, making it the ideal replacement for lead in soldering metal consumer products.
Silver can also act as a catalyst for reactions that produce valuable chemical compounds. Silver can increase the speed of reactions without being depleted, a valuable property for producing chemical compounds on an industrial scale. For example, silver is used in producing ethylene oxide, which is used in manufacturing molded plastics and antifreeze. It is also used to produce formaldehyde, popularly known as an embalming agent, but also valuable in creating solid plastics, protective clothing and chemical disinfectants.
Before industrialization, silver was a financial commodity that made the world go round. Silver lasts a long time because it doesn’t rust, and its melting temperature is high. These characteristics, plus the wider availability of silver compared to gold, made it an ideal material for coins. Historically, a person’s wealth was measured in the weight of silver they owned.
Today, coins are made of less expensive materials like copper or nickel, but silver is still a valuable commodity. Many people invest in the silver industry, or even buy 99.99% pure silver bars or medallions. Silver coins also live on in collectors’ editions of certain coin designs, produced by countries to mark important events, people or landmarks.
Believe it or not, silver is one of the reasons that you can take a picture with your phone today. Silver played a big part in the origins of photography. Silver nitrate – the same compound now used to make silver paste that helps solar panels conduct their electricity – was used on photographic plates in early camera technology. Photographers would coat plates of glass in silver nitrate and then briefly expose them to light. The compound reacted to light by turning black, creating a negative image on the plate, a reflection of the image in real life.
While silver nitrate plates might be largely a thing of the past, silver still makes up a big part of photography manufacturing. It’s estimated that over 1,920 metric tons of silver are used for photographic purposes each year.
While silver jewelry and money are a sign of financial status, the element is perhaps even more valuable in medicine production – health is wealth, after all. Silver ions absorb oxygen, killing bacteria and making the metal naturally antibiotic. That’s why, historically, silver foil was wrapped around wounds to fight infection and help them heal and colloidal silver was prescribed as an oral or topical medicine, in eye drops and in dental hygiene.
These days the risk of ingesting large amounts of silver are better known, so doctors no longer prescribe colloidal silver, opting instead for other, safer antibiotics. However, silver is still used today in hospitals to coat surfaces and medical equipment to eliminate the risk of antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA.
Due to this antibacterial property, silver is also useful in keeping food from spoiling. Even before the antibiotic properties of silver were understood, people would use silver-coated containers to preserve foodstuffs, particularly liquids. Today, a small amount of silver can be found in water filters to help sanitize everything from drinking water to swimming pools.
One of the newest adaptations of this technology is nanosilver coating. Nanosilver is like silver paste but with extremely small particles, 1 nanometer (that’s 1 billionth of a meter). Nanosilver allows for a very small amount of silver to be used in coating a wide surface area. These coatings are applied to washing machine drums, refrigerators, and personal hygiene products to give them an antibacterial quality at an affordable consumer price.