Silver: A technology metal that is cheap and plentiful
Critical metal, technology metal and precious metal all wrapped into one and (as of when this was being written) all yours for the modest price of $21.69 an ounce. In fact, it is hard to categorise it in terms of the various page icons at the top of the InvestorIntel webpage — hence you can read it under several subject headings.
I’m talking about silver. And not in terms of the “Gold & Silver” section of this website (even though by mid-October the U.S. Mint had sold 36.94 million American Eagle coins since January 1, more than during the whole of 2012).
In the past, I have written about the two discrete roles of silver, and the extent to which the industrial uses tussle over price-setting with the investment side of the metal. But the former is gaining: in fact, silver is starting to move beyond the minor but critical metals like tungsten, antimony and indium, and more into the rarefied space occupied by rare earth metals and graphite/graphene. It will be, like rare earth metals, vital to an increasing number of technologies but, unlike REE, there is no question of supply shortfalls or any country controlling that supply and trying to hold the rest of the world hostage. (In fact, Americans can just look across the Mexican border and there’s plenty of silver being mined there; it’s the world’s biggest producer and Peru is No. 3.) And there is the added advantage that a falling silver price does not really cause reduced output as much of the metal is by-product from gold and base metal mines.
So, silver as possibly one of the more fascinating technology metals, cheap and plentiful. Who knew?
In the latest bulletin from the Washington-based Silver Institute, we read that silver may be the key to bio-batteries. Stanford University has produced a study that the institute says may help scientists and engineers in their quest for the production of so-called bio-batteries that can produce substantial amounts of electricity from wastewater, contaminants and sewage. They think they can connect bacteria directly to electrodes. The Stanford team found that when silver oxide is introduced to the area around the positive electrode, the silver compound consumes electrons, literally pulling them out of the bacteria and sending them on their way as electricity. Silver, after all, has the largest electrical conductivity of any element.
And medicine is seeing increasing applications of the white metal, too. Scientists at the University of Toledo have been working on a problem: silver is being used as a medium to deliver drugs into patients, in cell imaging and other applications. As the institute points out, silver nanoparticles have some drawbacks. The most critical is that the silver readily oxidises allowing it to degrade quickly once inside the body. Instead, gold was used in many applications because it was more stable albeit more expensive. The scientists now think they have the problem licked and have been able to create stable silver nanoparticles. Terry Bigioni, a chemist at the university, says the purity of the new silver ones is a huge advantage for biomedical applications.
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Silver can make producing hydrogen more efficient. As the institute explains, “water splitting”, or artificial photosynthesis, is a way to convert the energy of sunlight into chemical energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used for clean energy, especially in vehicles. Now, to make that process more efficient, scientists are using a zinc-oxide/silver photo electrode which is very susceptible to sunlight. A laser is directed at a silver oxide film, which loosens silver particles. The silver enhances the light-collecting properties of zinc oxide, meaning much more sunlight is absorbed. The result, according to the research team at the National Taiwan University, results in up to 200% more hydrogen than without the silver particles.
Yes, I know, very small amounts of silver are involved. But, along with the metal’s use in water purification and as a anti-bacterial element in bandages and medical instruments, it is a very interesting technology metals story, don’t you think?
Postscript: In a back-to-the-future development, photography is doing a vinyl. Just as many music purists prefer those 12-inch records that rotate on a turntable to the CD, so some photo buffs think the old silver halide film produces richer images than digital. There are still an estimated 300 million Polaroid cameras in existence around the world, incidentally. And in 2008 a group called The Impossible Project saved the last remaining instant film production plant (in the Netherlands), So silver is still going into film.
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