Silver: the essentials

Silver is somewhat rare and expensive, although not as expensive as gold. Slag dumps in Asia Minor and on islands in the Aegean Sea indicate that man learned to separate silver from lead as early as 3000 B.C. Pure silver has a brilliant white metallic lustre. It is a little harder than gold and is very ductile and malleable. Pure silver has the highest electrical and thermal conductivity of all metals, and possesses the lowest contact resistance. Silver iodide, AgI, is (or was?) used for causing clouds to produce rain.

Silver is stable in pure air and water, but tarnishes when exposed to ozone, hydrogen sulphide, or air containing sulphur. It occurs in ores including argentite, lead, lead-zinc, copper and gold found in Mexico, Peru, and the USA.


The result of aqueous ignition of a mixture of magnesium metal with silver nitrate with water (only to be demonstrated by a professionally qualified chemist following a legally satisfactory hazard asessment). Improperly done, this reaction is dangerous!

Nearing Zero cartoon for silver
Cartoon by Nick D Kim (nearingzero.net, used by permission).

Table: basic information about and classifications of silver.

Silver: historical information

Silver was discovered by Known since ancient times at no data in not known. Origin of name: from the Anglo-Saxon word "siolfur" meaning "silver" (the origin of the symbol Ag comes from the Latin word "argentum" meaning "silver").

Silver has been known since ancient times. It is mentioned in Genesis. Slag dumps in Asia Minor and on islands in the Aegean Sea indicate that man learned to separate silver from lead as early as 3000 B.C.

Silver is one of the elements which has an alchemical symbol, shown below (alchemy is an ancient pursuit concerned with, for instance, the transformation of other metals into gold).

{{floatR}}alchemical symbol of silver{{floatR}}

Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for silver is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]

Dalton's symbol for silver

Silver: physical properties

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Silver: orbital properties

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Isolation

Isolation: silver is readily available commercially so it is not normally necessary to prepare silver in the laboratory. However the formation of silver metal may be demonstrated in a satisfying reaction in which copper metal is dipped into a solution of silver nitrate, AgNO3.

Cu(s) + 2 AgNO3 (aq) → Cu(NO3)2 + 2 Ag (s)

The result is formation of often attractive silver crystals and a blue-green solution of copper nitrate. Industrially, silver is usually a byproduct of processes whose main object is the extraction of another metal such as copper, lead, and zinc. So called "anode slimes" from the electrolytic purification of copper contain silver and a somewhat involved process is finished by an electrolysis of a nitrate solution containing silver.

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silver atomic number