Silver ( /ˈsɪlvər/) is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag (Latin: argentum, from the Indo-European root *arg- for “grey” or “shining”) and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal. The metal occurs naturally in its pure, free form (native silver), as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentite and chlorargyrite. Most silver is produced as a by-product of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.
Silver has long been valued as a precious metal, and it is used to make ornaments, jewelry, high-value tableware, utensils (hence the term silverware), and currency coins. Today, silver metal is also used in electrical contacts and conductors, in mirrors and in catalysis of chemical reactions. Its compounds are used in photographic film and dilute silver nitrate solutions and other silver compounds are used as disinfectants and microbiocides. While many medical antimicrobial uses of silver have been supplanted by antibiotics, further research into clinical potential continues.
Silver is a very ductile and malleable (slightly harder than gold) monovalent coinage metal with a brilliant white metallic luster that can take a high degree of polish. It has the highest electrical conductivity of all metals, even higher than copper, but its greater cost has prevented it from being widely used in place of copper for electrical purposes. Despite this, 13,540 tons were used in the electromagnets used for enriching uranium during World War II (mainly because of the wartime shortage of copper). Another notable exception is in high-end audio cables.
Among metals, pure silver has the highest thermal conductivity (the non-metal diamond and superfluid helium II are higher) and one of the highest optical reflectivity. (Aluminium slightly outdoes silver in parts of the visible spectrum, and silver is a poor reflector of ultraviolet light). Silver also has the lowest contact resistance of any metal. Silver halides are photosensitive and are remarkable for their ability to record a latent image that can later be developed chemically. Silver is stable in pure air and water, but tarnishes when it is exposed to air or water containing ozone or hydrogen sulfide to form a black layer of silver sulfide which can be cleaned off with dilute hydrochloric acid. The most common oxidation state of silver is +1 (for example, silver nitrate: AgNO3); in addition, +2 compounds (for example, silver(II) fluoride: AgF2) and the less common +3 compounds (for example, potassium tetrafluoroargentate: K[AgF4] ) are known.
Naturally occurring silver is composed of two stable isotopes, 107Ag and 109Ag, with 107Ag being the most abundant (51.839% natural abundance). Silver’s isotopes are almost equal in abundance, something which is rare in the periodic table. Silver’s atomic weight is 107.8682(2) g/mol. Twenty-eight radioisotopes have been characterized, the most stable being 105Ag with a half-life of 41.29 days, 111Ag with a half-life of 7.45 days, and 112Ag with a half-life of 3.13 hours. This element has numerous meta states, the most stable being 108mAg (t1/2 = 418 years), 110mAg (t1/2 = 249.79 days) and 106mAg (t1/2 = 8.28 days). All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than an hour, and the majority of these have half-lives that are less than 3 minutes.
Isotopes of silver range in relative atomic mass from 93.943 (94Ag) to 126.936 (127Ag); the primary decay mode before the most abundant stable isotope, 107Ag, is electron capture and the primary mode after is beta decay. The primary decay products before 107Ag are palladium (element 46) isotopes, and the primary products after are cadmium (element 48) isotopes.
The palladium isotope 107Pd decays by beta emission to 107Ag with a half-life of 6.5 million years. Iron meteorites are the only objects with a high-enough palladium-to-silver ratio to yield measurable variations in 107Ag abundance. Radiogenic 107Ag was first discovered in the Santa Clara meteorite in 1978. The discoverers suggest that the coalescence and differentiation of iron-cored small planets may have occurred 10 million years after a nucleosynthetic event. 107Pd–107Ag correlations observed in bodies that have clearly been melted since the accretion of the solar system must reflect the presence of unstable nuclides in the early solar system.
Silver metal dissolves readily in nitric acid (HNO3) to produce silver nitrate (AgNO3), a transparent crystalline solid that is photosensitive and readily soluble in water. Silver nitrate is used as the starting point for the synthesis of many other silver compounds, as an antiseptic, and as a yellow stain for glass in stained glass. Silver metal does not react with sulfuric acid, which is used in jewelry-making to clean and remove copper oxide firescale from silver articles after silver soldering or annealing. However, silver reacts readily with sulfur or hydrogen sulfide H2S to produce silver sulfide, a dark-colored compound familiar as the tarnish on silver coins and other objects. Silver sulfide also forms silver whiskers when silver electrical contacts are used in an atmosphere rich in hydrogen sulfide.
Silver chloride (AgCl) is precipitated from solutions of silver nitrate in the presence of chloride ions, and the other silver halides used in the manufacture of photographic emulsions are made in the same way using bromide or iodide salts. Silver chloride is used in glass electrodes for pH testing and potentiometric measurement, and as a transparent cement for glass. Silver iodide has been used in attempts to seed clouds to produce rain. Silver halides are highly insoluble in aqueous solutions and are used in gravimetric analytical methods.
Silver oxide (Ag2O) can be produced when silver nitrate solutions are treated with a base; it is used as a positive electrode (anode) in watch batteries. Silver carbonate (Ag2CO3) is precipitated when silver nitrate is treated with sodium carbonate (Na2CO3).
- 2 AgNO3 + 2 OH– → Ag2O + H2O + 2 NO3–
- 2 AgNO3 + Na2CO3 → Ag2CO3 + 2 NaNO3
Silver fulminate (AgONC), a powerful, touch-sensitive explosive used in percussion caps, is made by reaction of silver metal with nitric acid in the presence of ethanol (C2H5OH). Another dangerously explosive silver compound is silver azide (AgN3), formed by reaction of silver nitrate with sodium azide (NaN3).
Latent images formed in silver halide crystals are developed by treatment with alkaline solutions of reducing agents such as hydroquinone, metol (4-(methylamino)phenol sulfate) or ascorbate which reduce the exposed halide to silver metal. Alkaline solutions of silver nitrate can be reduced to silver metal by reducing sugars such as glucose, and this reaction is used to silver glass mirrors and the interior of glass Christmas ornaments. Silver halides are soluble in solutions of sodium thiosulfate (Na2S2O3) which is used as a photographic fixer, to remove excess silver halide from photographic emulsions after image development.
Silver metal is attacked by strong oxidizers such as potassium permanganate (KMnO4) and potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7), and in the presence of potassium bromide (KBr), these compounds are used in photography to bleach silver images, converting them to silver halides that can either be fixed with thiosulfate or re-developed to intensify the original image. Silver forms cyanide complexes (silver cyanide) that are soluble in water in the presence of an excess of cyanide ions. Silver cyanide solutions are used in electroplating of silver.
Silver, in the form of electrum (a gold-silver alloy), was coined to produce money in around 700 BC by the Lydians. Later, silver was refined and coined in its pure form. Many nations used silver as the basic unit of monetary value. In the modern world, silver bullion has the ISO currency code XAG. The name of the United Kingdom monetary unit “pound” (£) reflects the fact that it originally represented the value of one troy pound of sterling silver. In the 1800s, many nations, such as the United States and Great Britain, switched from silver to a gold standard of monetary value, then in the 20th century to fiat currency.
Jewelry and silverware
Jewelry and silverware are traditionally made from sterling silver (standard silver), an alloy of 92.5% silver with 7.5% copper. In the US, only an alloy consisting of at least 92.5% fine silver can be marketed as “silver” (thus frequently stamped 925). Sterling silver is harder than pure silver, and has a lower melting point (893 °C) than either pure silver or pure copper. Britannia silver is an alternative hallmark-quality standard containing 95.8% silver, often used to make silver tableware and wrought plate. With the addition of germanium, the patented modified alloy Argentium Sterling Silver is formed, with improved properties including resistance to firescale.
Sterling silver jewelry is often plated with a thin coat of .999 fine silver to give the item a shiny finish. This process is called “flashing”. Silver jewelry can also be plated with rhodium (for a bright, shiny look) or gold.
Silver is a constituent of almost all colored carat gold alloys and carat gold solders, giving the alloys paler color and greater hardness. White 9 carat gold contains 62.5% silver and 37.5% gold, while 22 carat gold contains up to 8.4% silver or 8.4% copper.
Historically the training and guild organization of goldsmiths included silversmiths as well, and the two crafts remain largely overlapping. Unlike blacksmiths, silversmiths do not shape the metal while it is red-hot but instead, work it at room temperature with gentle and carefully placed hammerblows. The essence of silversmithing is to take a flat piece of metal and by means of different hammers, stakes and other simple tools, to transform it into a useful object.
While silversmiths specialize in, and principally work, silver, they also work with other metals such as gold, copper, steel, and brass. They make jewelry, silverware, armor, vases, and other artistic items. Because silver is such a malleable metal, silversmiths have a large range of choices with how they prefer to work the metal. Historically, silversmiths are mostly referred to as goldsmiths, which was usually the same guild. In the western Canadian silversmith tradition, guilds do not exist; however, mentoring through colleagues becomes a method of professional learning within a community of craftspeople.
Silver is much cheaper than gold, though still valuable, and so is very popular with jewelers who are just starting out and cannot afford to make pieces in gold, or as a practicing material for goldsmith apprentices. Silver has also become very fashionable, and is used frequently in more artistic jewelry pieces.
Traditionally silversmiths mostly made “silverware” (cutlery, table flatware, bowls, candlesticks and such). Only in more recent times has silversmithing become mainly work in jewelry, as much less solid silver tableware is now handmade.
Silver ions and silver compounds show a toxic effect on some bacteria, viruses, algae and fungi, typical for heavy metals like lead or mercury, but without the high toxicity to humans that are normally associated with these other metals. Its germicidal effects kill many microbial organisms in vitro, but testing and standardization of silver products is difficult.
Hippocrates, the “father of medicine”, wrote that silver had beneficial healing and anti-disease properties, and the Phoenicians used to store water, wine, and vinegar in silver bottles to prevent spoiling. In the early 1900s people[where?] would put silver coins in milk bottles to prolong the milk’s freshness. Its germicidal effects increased its value in utensils and as jewellery. The exact process of silver’s germicidal effect is still not entirely understood, although theories exist. One of these is the oligodynamic effect, which explains the effect on microorganisms but would not explain antiviral effects.
Silver is widely used in topical gels and impregnated into bandages because of its wide-spectrum antimicrobial activity. The anti-microbial properties of silver stem from the chemical properties of its ionized form, Ag+. This ion forms strong molecular bonds with other substances used by bacteria to respire, such as molecules containing sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen. When the Ag+ ion forms a complex with these molecules, they are rendered unusable by the bacteria, depriving them of necessary compounds and eventually leading to the bacteria’s death.
Silver compounds were used to prevent infection in World War I before the advent of antibiotics. Silver nitrate solution use continued, then was largely replaced by silver sulfadiazine cream (SSD cream), which generally became the “standard of care” for the antibacterial and antibiotic treatment of serious burns until the late 1990s. Now, other options, such as silver-coated dressings (activated silver dressings), are used in addition to SSD cream. However, the evidence for the effectiveness of such silver-treated dressings is mixed and although the evidence is promising it is marred by the poor quality of the trials used to assess these products. Consequently a systematic review by the Cochrane Collaboration (published in 2008) found insufficient evidence to recommend the use of silver-treated dressings to treat infected wounds.
There has been renewed interest in silver as a broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent. One application has silver being used with alginate, a naturally occurring biopolymer derived from seaweed, in a range of products designed to prevent infections as part of wound management procedures, particularly applicable to burn victims. In 2007, a company introduced a glass product that they claimed had antibacterial properties by coating the glass with a thin layer of silver. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved an endotracheal breathing tube with a fine coat of silver for use in mechanical ventilation, after studies found it reduced the risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia.
Another example uses the known enhanced antibacterial action of silver by applying an electric field. It was found recently that the antibacterial action of silver electrodes is greatly improved if the electrodes are covered with silver nanorods.
Silver is commonly used in catheters. Silver alloy catheters are more effective than standard catheters for reducing bacteriuria in adults in hospital having short term catheterisation. This meta-analysis clarifies discrepant results among trials of silver-coated urinary catheters by revealing that silver alloy catheters are significantly more effective in preventing urinary tract infections than are silver oxide catheters. Though silver alloy urinary catheters cost about $6 more than standard urinary catheters, they may be worth the extra cost since catheter-related infection is a common cause of nosocomial infection and bacteremia.
Various silver compounds, devices to make homeopathic solutions and colloidal silver suspensions are sold as remedies for numerous conditions. Although most colloidal silver preparations are harmless, there are cases where excessive consumption led to argyria over a period of months or years. High consumption doses of colloidal silver can result in coma, pleural edema, and hemolysis.
As of June 2010 Au/Ag is 67. Ag at $18 (October 2008 silver is about 1/75th of the price of gold by mass). Silver once traded at 1/6th to 1/12th the price of gold, prior to the Age of Discovery and the discovery of great silver deposits in the Americas, including Peru, Mexico and the United States, such as the vast Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, US. The glut prompted a prolonged and difficult political debate over US monetary policy and US Mint operations: Free Silver conversion similar to gold minting practice. This remained in public discourse during the latter two decades of the 19h century and into the 20th.
Over the last 100 years the price of silver and the gold/silver price ratio have fluctuated greatly due to competing industrial and store-of-value demands. In 1980 the silver price rose to an all-time high of US$49.45 per troy ounce (T.O.) due to market manipulation of Nelson Bunker Hunt and Herbert Hunt some time after the Silver Thursday the price was back to $10 per troy ounce. By December 2001 the price had dropped to US$4.15/T.O., and in May 2006 it had risen back as high as US$15.21/T.O. In March 2008 silver reached US$21.34/T.O.
The price of silver is important in Judaic Law. The lowest fiscal amount that a Jewish court, or Beth Din, can convene to adjudicate a case over is a shova pruta (value of a Babylonian pruta coin). This is fixed at 1/8 of a gram of pure, unrefined silver, at market price.