Modern Australian

Silver makes beautiful bling but it's also good for keeping the bacterial bugs away

  • Written by Mark Blaskovich, Senior Research Officer, The University of Queensland

To mark the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements we’re taking a look at some of the elements used by researchers in their work.

Today’s focus is silver, an element seen as a marker of second place – but this reputation is undeserved.

Silver has long played second fiddle to other elements. In sport, it is the symbol of second place, giving way to gold in the medals. In jewellery, airline frequent flyer programs and credit cards, silver is also topped by gold and platinum.

Silver makes beautiful bling but it's also good for keeping the bacterial bugs away Hold that silver high! Proud medal winners from the Sochi Winter Olympics, 2014. Flickr/Andy Miah, CC BY-NC

But in the world of useful elements, silver should be gold.

My interest in silver originated when growing up in Canada, searching through loose change for pre-1968 quarters (25 cents) that were made from 80% silver (currently worth at least US$2.24 each).

Read more: From the bronze age to food cans, here's how tin changed humanity

More recently, in my current scientific role fighting antimicrobial resistance, my interest has been piqued by silver’s association with killing bacteria.

The silver medical treatment

Silver has a long history of antibacterial activity. The Phoenicians lined clay vessels with silver to preserve liquids (around 1300BCE), the Persians and Greeks used silver containers to store drinking water (around 5000-300BCE) and Americans travelling west during the 1880s added silver coins into water barrels.

More recently, both American and Russian space programs have used ionic silver to purify water, including on the International Space Station.

Colloidal silver, a suspension of very small nanoparticles of silver metal, has found widespread use as a popular home remedy for a range of ailments, but is often marketed with dubious claims and is not supported by the scientific community.

Some websites claim the use of silver cutlery and dinnerware by wealthy Europeans in the Middle Ages may have helped favour their survival during the bubonic plague, though evidence supporting this is scant.

On a related note, one version of the origin of the term “blue blood” to describe the wealthy is based on their use of silver dinnerware, with significant silver ion ingestion known to cause argyria, or purple-grey skin.

Despite these nonscientific associations, silver has found widespread acceptance in the medical community for specific applications of its antibacterial properties.

Silver for burns

Silver nitrate solutions were found to prevent eye infections in newborns in the 1880s, and were still commonly used for this in the 1970s. Solutions were also used to treat burn injuries, leading to many scientific reports in the 1960s, such as a 1968 study on treating extensive thermal burns with 0.5% silver nitrate solution that describes an apparent reduction in death.

Both 0.5% silver nitrate solution and 1% silver sulfadiazine cream are still used in burn care and are accompanied by new silver-based wound dressings.

The antimicrobial use of silver has crept into consumer products, such as antibacterial bandages, socks and deodorants, and antibacterial coatings on a range of products such as refrigerators.

While this may sound like a good idea, there are concerns that widespread use of silver could cause bacteria to become resistant, not only to silver, but also to our important antibiotics.

It’s not known exactly how silver kills bacteria, but it seems to work by multiple mechanisms, including cell membrane damage and free radical generation.

Our work on silver is looking at whether it can help existing antibiotics work more effectively, especially against resistant bacteria. This research, which has been ongoing for more than five years, has identified that there is better synergy between silver and some types of antibiotics than others, but we don’t yet know why.

Eventually, this research could lead to new formulations of antibiotics with better activity, where the actual antibiotic remains the same but it is delivered as a salt with silver, instead of a more common ion like sodium.

The silver resources

The actual word silver stems from the Anglo-Saxon name for it, siolfur, while its chemical symbol Ag comes from the Latin name for silver, argentum.

Silver can sometimes be found as nuggets of pure metal, though this form is more rare than gold. Most often it is found combined with other elements in ores such as argentite (with sulfur) or galena (with lead).

Silver makes beautiful bling but it's also good for keeping the bacterial bugs away Not so shiny yet, a lump of silver ore. Shutterstock/hecke

The ores are mined and the silver generally removed by smelting (heating combined with chemical reactions). It is believed this technique was discovered before 2000BCE.

Historically, the major use of silver has been as coinage and in jewellery. Traditional photography uses silver halides for the photosensitive film, while mirror backings and Christmas ornaments use silver-plated glass.

Read more: Titanium is the perfect metal to make replacement human body parts

Silver lies in the middle of the periodic table. It is encircled by other useful and well-known metals such as (clockwise from above) copper, zinc, cadmium, mercury, gold, platinum, palladium and nickel.

I would argue that silver shines brightly above its neighbours – it actually does, as it has the highest reflectivity of any metal – and also is the best at conducting electricity and heat.

So silver really does deserves top of the podium: a gold for silver!

If you’re an academic researcher working with a particular element from the periodic table and have an interesting story to tell then why not get in touch.

Authors: Mark Blaskovich, Senior Research Officer, The University of Queensland

Read more http://theconversation.com/silver-makes-beautiful-bling-but-its-also-good-for-keeping-the-bacterial-bugs-away-115367

NEWS

who the suspects are, what they're charged with, and what happens next

Four men – three Russians and one Ukrainian – will be charged in relation to the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 passengers and...

a river does need all its water

Given her new role as federal environment minister, one of Sussan Ley’s comments in an interview with Nine Newspapers was eyebrow-raising, to put it mildly. She said:Sometimes the environment doesn’t...

There are 70 million refugees in the world. Here are 5 solutions to the problem

Little has been done to help the millions of refugees from Myanmar, Venezuela, Syria and other troubled countries find permanent resettlement options.Nyein Chan Naing/EPAThis week, the UN High Commissioner for...

Australians' trust in news media is falling as concern over 'fake news' grows

The report found that Australian news consumers access news less often and have lower interest in it compared to citizens in many other countries.ShutterstockOn today’s episode, we hear from Caroline...

Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly

The more comfortable women feel about breastfeeding in public, the better for both babies and society.Maxim Krivonos/ShutterstockSeen through the eyes of new mothers, our towns and cities can often seem...

Indies & Idols mixes rock stars with modern Polish composers

Artistic Director Richard Tognetti and members of the orchestra: the rock musicians whose work feature in this concert openly acknowledge the influence of the seemingly inaccessible avant-garde. Julian KingmaReview: Indies...

how is the Sun burning?

A nuclear reaction is under way inside the Sun. Emily Nunell/The Conversation CC-NY-BD, CC BYCurious Kids is a series for children. If you have a question you’d like an expert...

What you need to know about wearable tech radiation exposure

With constant advancements in technology, it can be difficult to keep up-to-date with the latest tech trends. Smartphones, smart watches, and VR are all readily available in shops, with newer...

young women share their stories of homelessness

People between the ages of 25 and 34 are the largest group of woman who find themselves homeless.Oleg Golovnev/ShutterstockIncreasing numbers of women lack a safe and secure place to call...

Buck-passing on apartment building safety leaves residents at risk

Hundreds of residents in a Sydney apartment complex, the 122-unit Mascot Towers, were evacuated last Sunday when cracks began to appear due to a serious structural failure. And it isn’t...

Krokodil, the Russian 'flesh-eating' drug, makes a rare appearance in Australia

The use of Krokodil has fluctuated throughout the 21st Century.From shutterstock.comA young man recently turned up at a rural drug and alcohol service in New South Wales seeking help because...

Myth busted. Boosting super would cost the budget more than it saved on age pensions

Compulsory super takes money out of the government's coffers faster than savings on the pension put it back in.ShutterstockIt is often claimed that Australia’s superannuation system will ease the budgetary...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

How Weight Loss Could Affect the Results of Your Breast Enhancement Procedure5 Outdoor Design Ideas that Marry Form and FunctionFinal Frontier - 5 Ways the Digital Landscape Has Changed Business for GoodCosmetic Physician, Dr. Phoebe Jones shares her expert tips on how to treat the most asked about skincare problemsYvonne Allen: How to improve your sex life in your relationshipThe Rug Lady Announces The Launch Of The Latest Saffia Rug Range7 Tips To Get Your Home Ready For WinterFuture-proofing your career prospectsYour Winter Hot Water System Guide for 2019Circulatory System Diseases and Risk FactorsEXYRA eyewearShould you get a hair transplant in Turkey if your hair is grey?Do You Need a Tummy Tuck or Just Liposuction?Best 4 Sassicaia Wine with Soothing Taste and AromaMarvelous Makeover - 5 Tips to Revitalize Your Look This Summer