The Many Uses of Silver
Uses of silver: Historically, silver has been used in coins, silverware, and jewelry, but today, these uses account for less than half of all silver consumption. Silver has become a material of innovation that appears in many unexpected places. Images copyright iStockphoto / Jorge Farres Sanchez, Tatiana Buzuleac, Nigel Spooner, and Stephanie Frey.
Silver, the white metal, has an illustrious reputation for its use in jewelry and coins, but today, silver’s primary use is industrial. Whether in cell phones or solar panels, new innovations are constantly emerging to take advantage of silver’s unique properties.
Silver is a precious metal because it is rare and valuable, and it is a noble metal because it resists corrosion and oxidation, though not as well as gold. Because it is the best thermal and electrical conductor of all the metals, silver is ideal for electrical applications. Its antimicrobial, non-toxic qualities make it useful in medicine and consumer products. Its high luster and reflectivity make it perfect for jewelry, silverware, and mirrors. Its malleability, which allows it to be flattened into sheets, and ductility, which allows it to be drawn into thin, flexible wire, make it the best choice for numerous industrial applications. Meanwhile, its photosensitivity has given it a place in film photography.
Because it is more abundant, silver is much less expensive than gold. Silver can be ground into powder, turned into paste, shaved into flakes, converted into a salt, alloyed with other metals, flattened into printable sheets, drawn into wires, suspended as a colloid, or even employed as a catalyst. These qualities ensure that silver will continue to shine in the industrial arena, while its long history in coinage and jewelry will sustain its status as a symbol of wealth and prestige.
Silver paste in electronics: Printed electronics like RFID tags rely on silver paste. Image copyright iStockphoto / JacobH.
Uses of silver in the U.S.: The United States Geological Survey has tabulated the amount of silver used in the United States by category of use. This data is shown in the graphic above. The «Other» category accounts for almost a quarter of the silver used and is fragmented into hundreds of different uses. Many of these are described below.
The number one use of silver in industry is in electronics. Silver’s unsurpassed thermal and electrical conductivity among metals means it cannot easily be replaced by less expensive materials.
For example, small quantities of silver are used as contacts in electrical switches: join the contacts, and the switch is on; separate them and the switch is off. Whether turning on a bedroom light using a conventional switch or turning on a microwave using a membrane switch, the result is the same: the current can pass through only when the contacts are joined. Automobiles are full of contacts that control electronic features, and so are consumer appliances. Industrial strength switches use silver, too.
How does silver get from the earth to these electronic devices? Silver comes from silver mines or from lead and zinc mines from which silver is a by-product. Smelting and refining removes silver from the ore. Then, the silver is usually shaped into bars or grains. Electronics demand silver of the highest purity: 99.99% pure, also known as having a fineness of 999.9.
Dissolving pure silver in nitric acid produces silver nitrate, which can be formed into powder or flakes. This material, in turn, can be fabricated into contacts or silver pastes, like conductive paste made with a silver-palladium alloy.
Silver paste has many uses, such as the membrane switch already mentioned and the rear defrost in many cars. In electronics, circuit paths, as well as passive components called multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs), rely on silver paste. One of the fastest growing uses of silver paste is in photovoltaic cells for the production of solar energy.
Nanosilver, silver with an extremely small particle size (1-100 nanometers, that is 1-100 billionths of a meter), provides a new frontier for technological innovation, requiring much smaller amounts of silver to get the job done. Printed electronics work by using nanosilver conductive inks. One example of a printed electronic is the electrode in a supercapacitor, which can charge and discharge repeatedly and quickly. Regenerative breaking is an automotive innovation that allows the kinetic energy of a slowing vehicle to be stored in a supercapacitor for reuse. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags offer another powerful application of printed electronics. These tags are better than bar codes for tracking inventory because they store more information and can be read from a greater distance, even without a direct line of sight.
Silver has its place in consumer electronics, too. Your plasma television set may rely on silver for more than just the on-off switch if it contains a silver electrode aimed at giving a higher quality image. Light emitting diodes (LED) also use silver electrodes to produce low-level, energy efficient light. Meanwhile the DVDs and CDs you play probably have a thin silver recording layer.
Another electronic application of silver is in batteries that employ silver oxide or silver zinc alloys. These light-weight, high-capacity batteries perform better at high temperature than other batteries. Silver-oxide is used in button batteries that power cameras and watches, as well as in aerospace and defense applications. Silver-zinc batteries offer an alternative to lithium batteries for laptop computers and electric cars.
On the cutting edge of technology are superconductors. Silver is not a superconductor, but when paired with one, the two together can transmit electricity even faster than the superconductor alone. At very low temperatures, superconductors carry electricity with little or no electrical resistance. They can be used to generate magnetic energy for turning motors or propelling magnetic levitation trains.
The myriad applications of silver in electronics offer an eye-opening view into how one of the most famous metals in history has become a cutting edge material of the future. Due in part to its unique property of having the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of all metals, silver is often a must-have over other, less expensive materials.
Silver in solar panels: Silver paste contacts form bus bars and grid lines that draw electrical current from the semiconducting surface of a photovoltaic cell. Image copyright iStockphoto / Gyuszko.
As mentioned previously, silver paste is used to make solar panels. Silver paste contacts printed onto photovoltaic cells capture and carry electrical current. This current is produced when energy from the sun impacts the semiconducting layer of the cell. Photovoltaic cells are one of the fastest growing uses of silver.
Silver’s reflectivity gives it another role in solar energy. It reflects solar energy into collectors that use salts to generate electricity.
Nuclear energy also uses silver. The white metal is often employed in control rods to capture neutrons and slow the rate of fission in nuclear reactors. Inserting the control rods into the nuclear core slows the reaction, while removing them speeds it up.
Silver brazing and soldering: Silver brazing and soldering ensures a tight joint between metal pipes. Image copyright iStockphoto / bypicart.
Brazing and soldering make use of silver’s high tensile strength and ductility to create joints between two metal pieces. Brazing takes place at temperatures above 600В°C, while soldering takes place at temperatures below 600В°C. Silver scrap can be used in brazing and soldering because these processes do not require very pure silver. Brazing and soldering produce tight joints for everything from heating and air conditioning vents to plumbing. Silver’s antibacterial properties and non-toxicity to humans make it a great replacement for lead-based bonds between water pipes.
Silver wire: Silver wire can be woven into a metal mesh and used as a catalyst. Granular silver also makes a good catalyst. Image copyright iStockphoto / Greg801.
Silver acts as a catalyst to produce two important chemicals: ethylene oxide and formaldehyde. Ethylene oxide is used to produce molded plastics, such as plastic handles, and flexible plastics, such as polyester. It is also a major ingredient in antifreeze. Formaldehyde is used to make solid plastics and resins and as a protective coating. It is also used as a disinfectant and embalming agent. As a catalyst, silver increases the speed of reactions without getting used up.
Silver coins and bullion: Silver coins have been minted for thousands of years. Silver bullion is still a popular investment choice today. Image copyright iStockphoto / shakzu.
Silver has traditionally served, with gold, as the metal used in coins. As a precious metal, silver is rare and valuable, making it a convenient store of wealth. In the past, people accumulated their wealth in the form of silver coins; today, they invest in investment-grade silver bullion. The fact that silver does not corrode and only melts at a relatively high temperature, means that it can last, and the fact that it has high luster makes it attractive. Its malleability makes silver a good choice for designing and minting local currency.
In greater abundance, and therefore less expensive, than gold, silver has been used more prevalently as currency. Silver was mined and used in trading several thousands of years BC and was first minted into silver coins in the Mediterranean region many hundreds of years BC. Until the 20th century, many countries used a silver or gold standard, backing up the value of currency with the presence of gold or silver in the treasury. Today, countries use less expensive metals, such as copper and nickel, to produce coins, and they use fiat currency, in which government regulation controls the value, instead of a gold or silver standard.
Still, silver retains its value as a commodity. Many individuals choose to invest in silver through financial instruments, like stocks and mutual funds, or by actually buying and storing 99.9% pure silver bullion bars, coins, or medallions. Countries sometime produce silver collector’s edition coins, which they sell to buyers at a price exceeding the value of the silver used to make the coin.
Silver rings: Silver, precious and lustrous, makes beautiful, long-lasting jewelry. Image copyright iStockphoto / pixeljuice.
Jewelry and silverware are two other traditional uses of silver. Malleability, reflectivity, and luster make silver a beautiful choice. Because it is so soft, silver must be alloyed with base metals, like copper, as in the case of sterling silver (92.5% silver, 7.5% copper). Even though it resists oxidation and corrosion, silver can tarnish, but with a little polish, it can shine for a lifetime. Because it is less expensive than gold, silver is a popular choice for jewelry and a standard for fine dining. Silver-plated base metals offer a less costly alternative to silver. Silver dishes and plates may accompany silverware, and these can often be ornately crafted works of art. For example, Paul Revere (1734-1818), known to most for his midnight ride at the start of the American Revolution, was a silversmith by trade, and some of his artwork is still on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Silver in photography film: Silver halide in photographic film responds to light, leaving a latent image behind. Image copyright iStockphoto / Njari.
Photography had been one of the primary industrial uses of silver until the recent rise of digital media. Traditional film photography relies on the light sensitivity of silver halide crystals present in film. When the film is exposed to light, the silver halide crystals change to record a latent image that can be developed into a photograph. The accuracy of this process makes it useful for non-digital consumer photography, film, and X-rays.
The silver used in film photography should not be confused with the «silver screen» of cinema. This phrase refers not to the silver in the film itself, but to the silver lenticular screen onto which early films were projected.
Silver is used in ointments: Some ointments take advantage of silver’s antibacterial qualities to protect wounds against infection. Image copyright iStockphoto / cglade.
Silver ions act as a catalyst by absorbing oxygen, which kills bacteria by interfering with their respiration. This antibiotic property, along with its non-toxicity, has given silver an essential role in medicine for thousands of years. Before widespread use of antibiotics, silver foil was wrapped around wounds to help them heal, and colloidal silver and silver-protein complexes were ingested or applied topically to fight illness. Silver has also been used in eye drops and in dental hygiene to cure and prevent infection.
While silver is not toxic, repeat intake of small amounts of silver over time can result in argyria. In people with this condition, silver builds up in body tissue, giving it a gray-blue appearance when exposed to the sun. In addition, the ingestion of large amounts of silver can have negative effects on the body. For these reasons, medical doctors discourage the use of colloidal silver, discounting claims by some that colloidal silver is a cure-all dietary supplement.
Today, the presence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs increases the demand for silver in hospitals. Small amounts of silver can coat hospital surfaces and medical equipment to prevent the spread of pathogens. Silver in surgical equipment, wound dressings, and ointments protects wounds from infection. Silver sulfadiazine is especially useful for burn victims because it kills bacteria while also allowing the skin to regrow. Silver ion treatments can heal bone infections and allow regeneration of damaged tissue.
Silver in windows of skyscrapers: Many modern skyscrapers have window glass that is coated with silver to reflect sunlight and reduce air conditioning costs. Image copyright iStockphoto / sankai.
Silver is almost completely reflective when polished. Since the 19th century, mirrors have been made by coating a transparent glass surface with a thin layer of silver, though modern mirrors also use other metals like aluminum. Many windows of modern buildings are coated with a transparent layer of silver that reflects sunlight, keeping the interior cool in the summer. In aerospace, silver-coated tiles protect spacecraft from the sun.
Silver-coated ball bearings: Silver-coated ball bearings reduce friction in engines. Image copyright iStockphoto / felixR.
Engine bearings rely on silver. The strongest bearing is made from steel that has been electroplated with silver. Silver’s high melting point allows it to withstand the high temperature of engines. Silver also acts like a lubricant to reduce friction between a ball bearing and its housing. Due to its ability to absorb oxygen, silver is being researched as a possible substitute for platinum to catalyze oxidation of matter collected in diesel engine filters.
Silver awards: Silver often signifies second place and is used in medals and other awards. Image copyright iStockphoto / Vonkara1.
Due to its status as a precious metal, ranked second only to gold, silver is often used to award second place. The most famous silver award is the second-place Olympic Silver Medal. Silver also symbolizes honor, valor, and accomplishment, which is why many military organizations, employers, clubs, and associations use silver or silver-colored awards to honor individuals for their contributions.
Silver in water filters: A silver coating prevents bacterial build-up in carbon-based water filtration systems. Image copyright iStockphoto / RaginaQ.
Silver’s antibacterial properties have been applied for thousands of years, long before the discovery of microbial organisms, because silver containers and coins were known to prevent spoilage of liquids. Today, a silver coating prevents bacterial build-up in carbon-based water filters, while silver ions in water purification systems carry oxygen that oxidizes and kills microbes. Silver-copper ions can even replace corrosive chlorine to sanitize pools and tanks.
The antimicrobial properties of silver that make it useful to medicine and water purification are now being applied in food and hygiene. Nanosilver coatings are applied to food packages and refrigerators. And many new consumer products, such as washing machines, clothing, and personal hygiene products tout the benefits of antibacterial silver.
Did You Know? Most of the world’s silver is produced as a by-product of lead mining. The mineral galena (shown above) is a combination of lead and sulfur. However, a small amount of silver usually substitutes for lead in the mineral’s crystal structure. At many galena mines, enough silver can be present in the galena that the value of the silver greatly exceeds the value of the lead that is mined. The financial reality of this is that the supply of silver is more dependent upon the amount of lead that is being mined than the price of silver. Specimen and photo by Arkenstone / www.iRocks.com.
Other traditional uses of silver exist. For example, silver is one ingredient in the amalgam used to fill dental cavities, though this approach has been largely replaced by other materials due to the presence of toxic mercury in the amalgam. Silver has also been used to plate instruments, such as flutes.
Today, silver is being applied to many new uses. Silver is one of many options for replacing toxic chromated copper arsenate as a wood preservative. Nanosilver inks and coatings on paper tout their ability to prevent the spread of bacterial infection. Silver metal glass, produced by cooling silver quickly, offers durable strength that resists deformation. Silver-based ionic liquids, which are in a liquid state at room temperature, can be used to clean up petroleum waste products. Silver in fabric allows touch screen users to keep their gloves on during cold weather.
Silver seems to have as many uses as the human imagination can develop. Traditional works of silver, like jewelry and silverware, rely on the creativity of artists. Modern uses depend on the creative exploits of scientists and engineers to meet the changing demands of consumers and industries. While some uses rise and fall, such as the use of silver in photographic film, other uses may continue to grow, such as the burgeoning production of photovoltaic cells for solar energy. Silver’s unique properties, especially its high thermal and electrical conductivity, its reflectivity, and its antibacterial qualities, make it difficult to replace, like a one-of-a-kind silver ring.
Useful Notes / The Silver Age of Comic Books
Depending on who you ask, either a magical time when comic books were wonderful and everyone read them, or a historical relic where everything was childish, pointless, and/or ludicrous. (Or both.) Well, to be fair, The Golden Age of Comic Books could also be pretty silly when it wanted to be.
The Silver Age lasted from 1956 note Some Marvel partisans claim 1961, instead, for the first issue of Fantastic Four to about 1972 (although some people count everything up until 1985 as part of it, folding in the The Bronze Age of Comic Books). Note that this is the period that spawned the Adam West Batman series and the Superman Broadway musical, and no, this is not a coincidence. The Silver Age was a time of talking gorillas and super-powered pets, of covers that were created before the story and seventeen types of Kryptonite. It was naive and visionary, futuristic and outdated.
And every Superhero comic published today owes something to it.
In the late 1930s, the Superhero was born. The genre quickly exploded, with hundreds of titles published at the height of the time now known as the The Golden Age of Comic Books. Unfortunately, by 1950, the popularity of superhero comics had declined precipitously. This was due largely to the end of World War II taking away nearly all of the go-to enemies for heroes to fight, plus the knock-on result of people just being tired of fighting in general. During this period, superhero comics slowly vanished from the stands, to be replaced by horror comics, Westerns, monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, and other genres, with only a few (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman among them) still surviving.
That all changed in 1954 with the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a book that accused comics of creating juvenile delinquency and sexual «deviancy», creating a backlash that led directly to the creation of The Comics Code, which caused the destruction of the old comics paradigm almost literally overnight.
And then, in the September-October 1956 issue of DC Comics’s Showcase, something magical happened. A remake of super-speed character The Flash – with a new costume, secret identity, and origin – spiked the sales charts. After a couple more test issues, they gave him his own title, and tried redoing another Golden Age character, Green Lantern. This too was successful, and the Superhero genre was off to the races. Within a couple years, several other companies threw their hats into the ring, such as Atlas, Charlton, and ACG. In 1961, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics was told by his boss to create something in the vein of DC’s Justice League of America. Thus, the Fantastic Four appeared on the stands, and Marvel’s innovative characterization-based approach to comic books appeared. Thus, some people split the age by referring to the period between the introduction of the Barry Allen Flash and that of the Fantastic Four as the «Early Silver Age».
The Silver Age can be split between two approaches – the more old-fashioned Golden Age style with stalwart, lantern-jawed heroes solving the plot through logic and creative use of their signature abilities. and the more characterization-based style, where heroes dealt with supervillains and inner demons alike. One could say that the Silver Age ended when Jack Kirby, one of the creators of the latter style at Marvel, moved to DC, the mainstay of the old-fashioned approach. However, Steve Ditko, the third major founding talent of Marvel Comics and co-creator of Spider-Man, had crossed over before him.
The Silver Age was, in a word, silly. Due to the assumptions of The Comics Code, creators were generally restricted to creating entertainment for children, and the Code’s guidelines as to what was age-appropriate were very strict, precluding a lot of possible storylines that might deal with more mature themes. The ’50s also saw a general turn toward conservatism in American society as a reaction against the disruption of the War, and pushing the envelope or questioning social norms was frowned upon. This is most obvious when it comes to female characters, who had been more independent back in the Golden Age – this is the era when Wonder Woman became vaguely apologetic about rescuing male characters; and Lois Lane, who had been portrayed as an ambitious career woman before, decided her main goal in life was forcing Superman to marry her and becoming a housewife.
Morality in Silver Age comics was extremely black and white; heroes in particular followed a strict, moralistic code of conduct. Since dealing with serious real-world issues was frowned upon, wacky Speculative Fiction plots that bore no relation to reality became increasingly common. Supervillains’ plans were usually more goofy than genuinely threatening. Superheroes had names like [Something Person] or [The Adjectival Superhero], which would seem too narmy today, and they would develop New Powers as the Plot Demands no matter how flimsy the justification or how absurd the power (one word: super-weaving ).
Since realism and consistent characterization were not exactly high priorities, the age saw a lot of Superdickery; Silver Age Covers Always Lie, and characters would frequently be seen doing something bizarrely out-of-character on the cover just to attract more buyers note In fact, as the story goes, it was not uncommon practice for the eye-catching cover to be created first, and then passed off to the writer, who then had to shape a story around it . Depending on who you ask, all this wackiness is either the Silver Age’s fatal flaw or all part of the charm.
Another fascination of the Silver Age was Science! The Silver Age occurred alongside The Space Race. Science was the answer to, and source of, every problem. The mutations of the X-Men, the alternate universe known as Earth-2, the alien conqueror known as Starro – the genre was filled to the brim with Speculative Fiction Tropes. Many of the more fantasy-based heroes of the Golden Age were remade with scientific origins and powers. Of course, the science wasn’t necessarily very scientific. The authors were rarely scientists themselves, and even those who were didn’t let the facts get in the way of an exciting story, especially when the stories were already so goofy. Thus, you had stuff like ice missiles that were attracted to speed, people who were exposed to radiation receiving superpowers instead of cancer, and so on.
Which is not to downplay its significance, mind you. Many of the most famous comic book characters and story-lines came from this era (The Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil) and many new ideas were created that would become standard in future comics: Superheroes as a social platform? The teenage masked hero? They started here. As well as how already existing characters were changed. (Many of the most famous elements and characters in The Green Lantern were non-existent in the Golden Age). And despite its reputation as being whimsical, this view is often based less on the actual comic books and more on its parody or the Batman TV show. While it generally had a lot of silly moments, it was also host to surprisingly mature storytelling at times.
Over time, social mores relaxed and the moral panic around comic books faded. The Superhero genre began deliberately distancing itself from Silver Age silliness in an attempt to prove that comic books were a medium that could tell stories that were relevant to adults as well as kids and could deal with serious real-world issues. This trend toward a more serious tone and more socially relevant stories continued throughout the Bronze Age and culminated in the grim darkness of the Dark Age. In the Modern Age, however, the pendulum has started to swing back (which might qualify the various Ages as parts of a Cyclic Trope). Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which ran from 2008-2011, attempted to revive the age in a modern setting.
Notable series of the Silver Age:
- Amazing Spider-Man (most successful instance of the Marvel style)
- Fantastic Four (beginning of the modern Marvel Universe)
- The Flash (introduced the Alternate Universe to The DCU and in general exemplifies the age)
- Showcase (introduced updated versions of Golden Age heroes as well as popular new characters)
- Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane (spinoffs from Superman and notable for their often bizarre plots and even more bizarre science. The former series is generally thought of by comic readers as the single most stereotypical example of Silver Age tropes, especially in modern Shout Outs.)
- The Incredible Hulk, first true anti-hero of that age, and arguably the last «monster comic» that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did.
- Legion of Super-Heroes
The brilliant computer game Freedom Force and its almost-as-brilliant sequel Freedom Force Versus the Third Reich, both from Irrational Games, are loving homages to the Silver Age, played 100% straight. Another homage is Alan Moore’s 1963 universe, a series of interrelated comics that are all affectionate parodies of the early Marvel books.
«Holy Musical B@man!» is an homage and affectionate parody of superheros in general, but with a special emphasis on the Silver Age. The moral of the play is essentially «don’t take it so seriously,» and «superheros are cool in their own right and don’t need to be made dark or gritty to be entertaining.»
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The Many Uses of Silver
Explore the many uses of silver. Silver is used in electronics, soldering, energy, chemical production, jewelry, photography and more.
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