What do solar panels, automobiles, mobile phones, lighting systems, computers, and plasma televisions have in common? First, they all rely on silver. What makes silver so valuable is a unique combination of characteristics not found in any other single element.
Additionally, silver’s chemical and physical attributes make the metal a prime component in a growing list of applications, including wound and burn care, consumer appliances and devices, textiles and clothing, water purification, catalysts for industrial processes, commercial food and beverage preparation, furniture, and building materials. The growing discipline of nanotechnology is increasing new applications for nanosilver, too.
There are three main uses for silver: industrial, jewellery and silverware, and investment. Together they represent the bulk of silver consumption. This article will focus primarily on silver industrial uses.
In 2020, silver industrial fabrication posted 486.8 million ounces (Moz) of demand, a decline from 2019 numbers, according to World Silver Survey 2021, produced on behalf of the Silver Institute by Metals Focus. The decrease was chiefly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced shutdowns of factories, lockdowns in major metropolitan cities, and influenced consumer sentiment. Regional performances were mixed, with India down 29% and Europe and China each 8% lower. In contrast, modest gains were seen in North America, Taiwan, and Japan. On a sector basis, photovoltaic demand increased 2%.
A mainstay in the silver industrial complex is its use in solar energy. How is silver used in solar cells? Silver powder is turned into a paste and loaded onto a silicon wafer. When light strikes the silicon, electrons are set free, and the silver carries the electricity for immediate use or stores it in batteries for later consumption. In 2011, 67 Moz of silver was used in photovoltaic (PV) cells for solar energy. Last year, 101 Moz of silver was consumed in PV. Many think this number will continue to grow measurably over time, especially with the global effort to reduce carbon-based energy sources and the “greening” of our energy sources.
Electric vehicle revolution
The advent of the rise of increased electrification in the automotive industry has been a plus for silver. Due to its excellent electric conductivity, silver is widely used in and around the electric powertrain and other applications that are increasingly featured in hybrid ICE cars and EVs alike. Nearly all electrical connections in a modern automobile are outfitted with silver-coated contacts. Each uses silver membrane switches to start the engine, open windows, adjust seats, and close a trunk. Silver is also crucial to infotainment systems, window defogging, heated seats, and luminescent displays. As a result, automakers today are increasingly relying on silver to enable the vast technological advances incorporated into modern vehicles. As a result, the automotive sector has developed into another powerful demand centre for silver, with projections of nearly 90 Moz of silver absorbed annually in the automotive industry by 2025.
Silver’s high electrical and thermal conductivity and resistance to corrosion make it an ideal material for electronics and electrical uses. Consequently, the electronics and electrical sectors rely heavily on silver. In 2020 silver’s use in these sectors was 304.3 Moz.
Silver used in electrical applications has a wide range of varied end-uses, such as automotive or robots used in the manufacturing process. For example, modern manufacturing plants tend to use an increasing number of robots that utilize different-sized chips that contain silver depending on their size. In addition, other electrical applications, such as semiconductors, printed circuit boards, and RFID chips that are replacing bar codes for supply chain inventory all rely on silver.
Silver demand for printed and flexible electronics is forecast to increase 54%, from 48 Moz in 2021 to 74 Moz in 2030, consuming 615 Moz for these applications during the 10-year timeframe, as this market continues to mature and expand. Printed and flexible electronics are vital to the evolution of electronic technologies. They are mainstays in various products, including sensors for temperature, pressure, motion, lighting, moisture/relative humidity, radar, heart rate, and carbon monoxide. Other applications include internet-connected devices, medical and wearable electronics, displays for appliances, mobile phones, computers and tablets, medical devices, automotive, and consumer electronics.
Silver’s role as a biocide, or germ killer, is rapidly expanding. Although silver’s antibacterial properties have been known for centuries (the ancient Phoenicians carried water and wine in silver containers to keep it fresh), researchers have recently discovered how silver’s germ-fighting power works. First, silver atoms penetrate thin bacterial walls, disrupting growth and reproduction. Second, these atoms do not harm thicker human and animal cells. Most important, bacteria cannot build up an immunity to silver as they can to some antibiotics.
As a result, we see the commercialization of silver-based drinking water purification systems in homes and offices. Many swimming pool owners have switched to silver-based cleansers. Some food and beverage makers use silver in food preparation to keep equipment free from bacteria. Major well-known clothing manufacturers include silver in their textiles to combat bacterial that can cause odour. Bandage makers integrate silver into their products to prevent infections and promote healing. Hospitals use silver-coated catheters and even infuse hospital and operating rooms with silver to prevent bacteria.
Optimism towards silver’s green energy demand prospects remains strong
Growth driven by decarbonization
With re-openings of economies and vaccinations accelerating in many countries, economic growth in 2021 is strengthening. Notably, the International Monetary Fund projected 6% global GDP growth for this year. Industrial fabrication is forecast to increase by 8% in 2021 to a record annual total for the silver market, led by electrical and electronics offtake.
Optimism towards silver’s green energy demand prospects remains strong. Furthermore, regarding silver as a decarbonization metal, a combination of global efforts to reduce fossil fuel reliance, legislation to lower carbon emissions, and favourable government tax policies should result in a net positive for silver.
For example, policies in California today mandate that new residential homes be built to include a solar power system. Again, many countries are mandating clean fuel vehicle legislation targets and the manufacturers are ready for automobiles.
In summary, silver is an essential metal in our daily lives. It is also a metal that will be at the forefront of the green revolution. To find all these properties in a single package is one of nature’s most remarkable gifts.