2015 Silver Series Part 1: The Many Phases of Silver
Since the early days of civilization, the ancients connected the brilliance of silver to the moon. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, wore silver sandals and shot from a silver bow and arrow. This lunar comparison might be fitting because like the moon, silver also has many phases. The properties of silver make it the most dynamic of precious metals.
Evidence shows that silver was first separated from lead as far back in 3,000 BC. Many ancient civilizations used silver as money, including the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans. This was because of silver’s natural properties which make it malleable, divisible, durable, consistent, and rare.
Throughout history, people have used silver to prevent and combat illness. We now know today that silver has unique and impressive antibacterial properties that help it break down the cell walls of harmful bacteria. Silver also is the most conductive metal, and one of the three most reflective metals (along with gold and aluminum, and depending on the wavelength of light). These properties help make silver one of the most important industrial metals, with uses from photography to solar cells.
Don’t miss another part of the Silver Series by connecting with Visual Capitalist.
More Than a Precious Metal: How Platinum Improves Our World
Platinum is more than just a precious metal. Its unique properties make it a critical material in manufacturing, healthcare, and green technologies.
How Platinum Improves Our World
Within the hierarchy of precious metals, there is only one metal that could arguably stand above gold, and that is platinum.
This is due in large part to the metal’s rarity throughout history. Its earliest known use was on the Casket of Thebes in Ancient Egypt. South American Indigenous populations also used platinum for jewelry.
But platinum’s value goes beyond being a precious metal—its specific properties have made it indispensable to the modern economy, improving both the health and the wealth of the world.
Platinum’s Industrial Applications
Today’s infographic comes to us from the World Platinum Investment Council and outlines specifically how specific platinum’s properties are used in the modern economy.
There are four primary uses of platinum aside from investment demand.
- Renewable Power
Let’s look into all of these cases a little deeper.
Platinum’s versatility in manufacturing has quadrupled its demand since 1980. Its catalytic properties are critical to the production of fertilizers, and more specifically, platinum’s efficiency in converting ammonia to nitric acid paved the way for large-scale fertilizer production.
Around 90% of the nitrogen produced using platinum catalysts is used to make 190 million tonnes of fertilizers each year.
Platinum is a biologically compatible metal because it is both non-toxic and stable. It does not react negatively with or affect body tissues, which makes it an ideal material for medical tools. Platinum’s use in medicine dates back to 1874 for its use in arthroscopic tools. Its stability also makes it ideal for pacemakers and hearing assist devices today.
While non-threatening to healthy cells, platinum compounds known as cisplatin can damage cancer cells and treat testicular, ovarian, lung, bladder, and other cancers. Given these crucial applications, the World Health Organization has put cisplatin on its List of Essential Medicines.
Platinum is a critical material in the fight for cleaner air and in the construction of energy-efficient fiberglass. It is used in catalytic converters in exhaust systems of gas-powered vehicles, reducing the emission of harmful pollutants. In addition, platinum is used in the manufacturing process of high-end glass that improves the heating and cooling efficiency of homes and offices.
4. Renewable Power
Platinum’s catalytic properties make it critical to cleaning up air pollution, producing renewable hydrogen, and unleashing its power in fuel cells. Electrolysis, which can turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, works best when passing an electric current through platinum electrodes.
Fuel cells are set to power a new generation of emission-free vehicles, and platinum membranes are used inside of them as well.
More Than Precious
More than a precious metal, platinum has many applications that make it a critical material for the modern economy in years to come.
Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective
Gold has been used as money for millennia. People often attribute this to beauty, but there are basic physical properties for why gold is money.
Why Gold is Money
The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.
However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.
Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.
The Periodic Table
The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.
Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:
- Gases and Liquids
Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
- Lanthanides and Actinides
Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
- Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
- Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
- Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.
Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.
Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.
Gold as Money
Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.
Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.
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