Silver is a chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag (Greek: άργυρος árguros, Latin: argentum, both from the Indo-European root *arg- for "grey" or "shining") and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it possesses 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 byproduct of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.
Silver has long been valued as a precious metal, used in currency coins, to make ornaments, jewelry, high-value tableware and utensils (hence the term silverware) and as an investment in the forms of coins and bullion. Silver metal is used industrially 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 (oligodynamic effect). While many medical antimicrobial uses of silver have been supplanted by antibiotics, further research into clinical potential continues.
Silver is produced from lighter elements in the Universe through the r-process, a form of nuclear fusion believed to take place during certain types of supernova explosions. This produces many elements heavier than iron, of which silver is one.
Silver is a very ductile, 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. An exception to this is in radio-frequency engineering, particularly at VHF and higher frequencies, where silver plating to improve electrical conductivity of parts, including wires, is widely employed. During World War II in the US, 13,540 tons were used in the electromagnets used for enriching uranium, mainly because of the wartime shortage of copper.
Among metals, pure silver has the highest thermal conductivity (the nonmetal carbon in the form of diamond and superfluid helium II are higher) and one of the highest optical reflectivities. (Aluminium slightly outdoes silver in parts of the visible spectrum, and silver is a poor reflector of ultraviolet). Silver is the best conductor of heat and electricity of any metal on the periodic table. 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, the latter forming 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); the less common +2 compounds (for example, silver(II) fluoride, AgF2), and the even less common +3 (for example, potassium tetrafluoroargentate(III), KAgF4) and even +4 compounds (for example, potassium hexafluoroargentate(IV), K2AgF6) are also known.
Many well-known uses of silver involve its precious metal properties, including currency, decorative items, and mirrors. The contrast between its bright white color and other media makes it very useful to the visual arts. It has also long been used to confer high monetary value as objects (such as silver coins and investment bars) or make objects symbolic of high social or political rank. Silver salts have been used since the Middle Ages to produce a yellow or orange colors to stained glass, and more complex decorative color reactions can be produced by incorporating silver metal in blown, kilnformed or torchworked glass.
Main articles: Silver coin and Silver standard
Silver, in the form of electrum (a gold–silver alloy), was coined to produce money 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 pound sterling (£) reflects the fact it originally represented the value of one pound Tower weight of sterling silver; other historical currencies, such as the French livre, have similar etymologies. During the 19th century, the bimetallism that prevailed in most countries was undermined by the discovery of large deposits of silver in the Americas; fearing a sharp decrease in the value of silver and thus the currency, most states switched to a gold standard by 1900. In some languages, such as Sanskrit, Spanish, French, and Hebrew, the same word means both silver and money.
The 20th century saw a gradual movement to fiat currency, with most of the world monetary system losing its link to precious metals after Richard Nixon took the United States dollar off the gold standard in 1971; the last currency backed by gold was the Swiss franc, which became a pure fiat currency on 1 May 2000. During this same period, silver gradually ceased to be used in circulating coins. In 1964, the United States stopped minting their silver dime and quarter. They minted their last circulating silver coin in 1970 in its 40% half-dollar.
In 1968, Canada minted their last circulating silver coins which were the 50% dime and the 50% quarter. The Royal Canadian Mint still makes many collectible silver coins with various dollar denominations. In addition to Canada, the United States and many other countries continue to mint silver coins that are collected for their bullion and numismatic value. The U.S. coin is known as the "Eagle".
Silver is used as a currency by many individuals, and is legal tender in the US state of Utah. Silver coins and bullion are also used as an investment to guard against inflation and devaluation.
Jewelry and silverware
Shallow silver bowl, Persian, 6th century BC (Achaemenid). The deeper depressions reperesent lotus buds, an Egyptian motif. Walters Art Museum collections.
Silver plate with goddess Minerva from the Hildesheim Treasure, 1st century BC
Main articles: jewelry and silversmith
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 90.0% fine silver can be marketed as "silver" (thus frequently stamped 900). Sterling silver (stamped 925) 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 (to produce silver gilt).
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 a minimum of 91.7% gold and 8.3% silver or copper or other metals.
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 hammer blows. The essence of silversmithing is to take a flat piece of metal and to transform it into a useful object using different hammers, stakes and other simple tools.
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.
Traditionally, silversmiths mostly made "silverware" (cutlery, tableware, 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 can be alloyed with mercury at room temperature to make amalgams that are widely used for dental fillings. To make dental amalgam, a mixture of powdered silver and other metals such as tin and gold is mixed with mercury to make a stiff paste that can be adapted to the shape of a cavity. The dental amalgam achieves initial hardness within minutes, and sets hard in a few hours.
Photography and electronics
Photography used 30.98% of the silver consumed in 1998 in the form of silver nitrate and silver halides. In 2001, 23.47% was used for photography, while 20.03% was used in jewelry, 38.51% for industrial uses, and only 3.5% for coins and medals. The use of silver in photography has rapidly declined, due to the lower demand for consumer color film from the advent of digital technology; since 2007, of the 907 million ounces of silver in supply, just 117.6 million ounces (13%) were consumed by the photographic sector, about 50% of the amount used in photography in 1998. By 2010, the supply had increased by about 10% to 1056.8 million ounces, of which 72.7 million ounces were used in the photographic sector, a decline of 38% compared with 2007.
Some electrical and electronic products use silver for its superior conductivity, even when tarnished. The primary example of this is in high quality RF connectors. The increase in conductivity is also taken advantage of in RF engineering at VHF and higher frequencies, where conductors often cannot be scaled by 6%, due to tuning requirements, e.g. cavity filters. As an additional example, printed circuits and RFID antennas can be made using silver paints, and computer keyboards use silver electrical contacts. Silver cadmium oxide is used in high-voltage contacts because it can withstand arcing.
Some manufacturers produce audio connector cables, speaker wires, and power cables using silver conductors, which have a 6% higher conductivity than ordinary copper ones of identical dimensions, but cost much more. Though debatable, many hi-fi enthusiasts believe silver wires improve sound quality.
Small devices, such as hearing aids and watches, commonly use silver oxide batteries due to their long life and high energy-to-weight ratio. Another usage is high-capacity silver-zinc and silver-cadmium batteries.
Mirrors and optics
Mirrors which need superior reflectivity for visible light are commonly made with silver as the reflecting material in a process called silvering, though common mirrors are backed with aluminium. Using a process called sputtering, silver, along with other optically transparent layers, is applied to glass, creating low emissivity coatings used in high-performance insulated glazing. The amount of silver used per window is small because the silver layer is only 10–15 nanometers thick. However, the amount of silver-coated glass worldwide is hundreds of millions of square meters per year, leading to silver consumption on the order of 10 cubic meters or 100 metric tons/year. Silver color seen in architectural glass and tinted windows on vehicles is produced by sputtered chrome, stainless steel or other alloys. Silver is seldom used as the reflector in telescope mirrors, where aluminum is generally preferred because it is cheaper and less susceptible to tarnishing and corrosion. Silver is the reflective coating of choice for solar reflectors.
Other industrial and commercial applications
This Yanagisawa A9932J alto saxophone has a solid silver bell and neck with a solid phosphor bronze body. The bell, neck, and key-cups are extensively engraved. It was manufactured in 2008.
Silver and silver alloys are used in the construction of high-quality musical wind instruments of many types. Flutes, in particular, are commonly constructed of silver alloy or silver plated, both for appearance and for the frictional surface properties of silver.
Silver's catalytic properties make it ideal for use as a catalyst in oxidation reactions, for example, the production of formaldehyde from methanol and air by means of silver screens or crystallites containing a minimum 99.95 weight-percent silver. Silver (upon some suitable support) is probably the only catalyst available today to convert ethylene to ethylene oxide (later hydrolyzed to ethylene glycol, used for making polyesters)— an important industrial reaction. It is also used in the Oddy test to detect reduced sulfur compounds and carbonyl sulfides.
Because silver readily absorbs free neutrons, it is commonly used to make control rods to regulate the fission chain reaction in pressurized water nuclear reactors, generally in the form of an alloy containing 80% silver, 15% indium, and 5% cadmium.
Silver is used to make solder and brazing alloys, and as a thin layer on bearing surfaces can provide a significant increase in galling resistance and reduce wear under heavy load, particularly against steel.