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In a world where silver is relatively abundant and not valued as luxury product and is pretty cheap (probably even cheaper than iron or steel)

How viable would silver or its alloys be as a replacement for Aluminium, Steel and other metals?

Obviously answer would be electronics. But how would it fare in automobile, aeronautics, ship making, building construction, firearms industry as a structural/building material?

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    $\begingroup$ There would be a lot of interest in developing silver alloys, since fine silver is difficult to machine due to its softness. The other issue would be finding ways to reduce or minimize corrosion. There might be some interesting battery technologies and other applications were silver oxides are used. A silver oxide batter has a flatter discharge curve and is less prone to exploding, but would be heavier than lithium batteries. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Jun 4, 2022 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ The title asks one question, the text asks several very different question. VTC as needs more focus. (And the answer to the question in the title is very easy to find: silver is very soft and very ductile. It is not at all easily machinable. Silver alloys are not silver but potentially very different materials, and you must focus on one alloy, or at at least one class of alloys.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 4, 2022 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ As a rule, we don't use particular metals because of cost, we use them because of their metallurgical properties. And silver makes very poor steel. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jun 4, 2022 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ Steel can be strong because of a perfect mix of features. Iron's BCC crystal structure means it can accommodate just a little bit of carbon in solid solubility at interstitial sites, increasing strength dramatically. Any excess carbon forms Fe3C, which is a hard intermetallic precipitate that forms on cooling without needing to melt the material due to a eutectoid transformation. This solid-state precipitation results in finer precipitates than eutectics, giving higher strength and plasticity. Ag simply can't do any of this because it has FCC crystal structure. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2022 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ Why not do your own work? Does "cheaper" come from it being more abundant and more readily worked than iron or steel? If not, what? How viable silver might be as a replacement for other metals depends on what qualities you compare… all of which should be available to your search engines… At what point did they fail? How silver comes into electronics isn't obvious to me, for one. How it would fare in automobile, aeronautics, ship making, building construction, firearms industry as a structural/building material can't work in English but again, where did your search engines fail? $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2022 at 22:55

8 Answers 8

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For the most part, anything copper can do, silver can do better. The hold-outs would be cases where copper needs structural strength, and it can be alloyed to manage this.

In particular, I expect it would be used as pipes and heat sinks. Electrical wiring would be an obvious case. More coatings for medical equipment would take advantage of its anti-microbial properties.

It would actually be used less for its decorative value if it were readily available. It's less durable and corrosion resistant than stainless steel or chrome. You wouldn't, for instance, have silver faucets in your kitchen. You can alloy it to make it more tarnish resistant, but there isn't much you can do to make it more resistant to being banged around.

One of the most likely increase in applications would actually be using it to alloy with other metals. You'd be hard pressed to find an iron or lead alloy that contains silver. It just not industrially practical, so we haven't researched it, and when we have, there is always a cheaper material that will do almost as good a job.

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  • $\begingroup$ I disagree on the decorative value --- silver, whether rare or common, is still a lustrous metal and outshines aluminium in that regard. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 4, 2022 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Silver is more lustrous, but brushed aluminum has its own unique look that would likely be appreciated more if it were rare. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jun 5, 2022 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ Silver is a white metal. There are a lot of white metals. We tend to think that the luster silver is beautiful because we've seen many beautiful things made of silver. It's a self-reinforcing concept. The inherent problem is that there is no way of testing it, so an author could take it any way they want. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2022 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ what's an example of a metal that isn't lustrous?! $\endgroup$
    – somebody
    Jun 6, 2022 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @somebody, Sodium and lead are non-lusterous. Almost any metal can be polished to a mirror finish, but then you have to ask how long it'll stay that way. The best you'll get with lead is equivalent to how well you can polish hardwood. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2022 at 17:47
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Silver would do fine.. but when it gets big..

..mind the weight

Suppose your structure is big, like a building.. With solid steel, you have 7.8 grams/cm3 material. But most steel buildings have abundant glass, which is about 2.5 gm/cm3. A sky scraper built out of solid steel without windows would sink into the ground, or collapse under its own weight.

Silver is worse: 10.5 g/cm3, much heavier than concrete which is 1.4 to 1.7 g/cm3 dependent on the flavour. That is about 6x as heavy as concrete. And you don't have glass, else you would use that.

Consequently, if you take square cube law and compressive strength (thx AlexP) into account for the roof and the walls of your building, they will need to be smaller than Earthly concrete buildings, assuming the same gravity as Earth.

Something I wonder about: what's the surface and crust of your planet composed of, when you don't have concrete at your disposal ? Building requires a solid underground, preferably rocky. On your planet, say silicon and calcium are rare (?) there should be some substance supporting these heavy silver buildings.

Aircraft

On a planet where iron, aluminium or carbon are scarce, you may run into weight issues if you want to build a working airplane. Also, take into account that silver underperforms in terms of stiffness.

Ships

A mechanic constraint: ships have a spheroid hull. When its material is too heavy and the ship is very large, this silver hull will come crumbling down under its own weight. Most of your ship will need to stay under the waterline to prevent that.. and be smaller as well.

For ships, Archimedes' law dictates weight constraints for floating, so your capacity for loading freight will also be smaller. Although a steel hull, commonly used on Earth, will only be 20% lighter than silver.

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    $\begingroup$ Wood and fabric is enough for small basic planes. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jun 5, 2022 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ The wartime restrictions of WWII had the world's largest boat plane made of wood. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hughes_H-4_Hercules $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jun 5, 2022 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend your comments would be relevant when 1) there exists wood .. iron is rare, so how are plants supposed to live there? and 2) you don't need to build big passenger aircraft, which was never done in wood. btw I think it could be possible to use a silver alloy for a small aircraft, provided a propellor motor can be constructed out of silver. Regret I don't own the funds to check it. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jun 6, 2022 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ A skyscraper without glass would definitely NOT sink into the ground. Glass is heavier than steel for the same strength. High-rises use 1/2" (12.7mm) of glass, but only 1mm thick steel for curtain walls. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Jun 7, 2022 at 2:22
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Obivious answer would be all kinds of Al high percentage Zn castings. All kinds of knobs, handles, signs etc (look where AlZn alloys were used historically).

Tensile strength of aluminum is 90 MPa and of silver is 130MPa

Alloys, high strength alloys of aluminum reach 600-700 MPa, but there is not so much reason to think that there aren't such things for silver(buuut I have to google to confirm).

So if it is decently abundant, and easier to extract than aluminum(cheaper energy wise) then silver sure will have its place in all kinds of things which made out of aluminum today, it isn't such a bad material. Silver based alloys are used for brazing, and I guess it could be even better when it becomes a welding technology in case of connecting silver silver parts.

But sure it will have its limits, and high strength is high strength, so as when mass is the factor it isn't that great. But good percentage of everyday objects could be made out of silver and its alloys, so it will see a good portion of those being made out of silver.

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    $\begingroup$ I definitely wouldn't want to replace my aluminium bicycle with a silver one. I have enough trouble making it up hills as it is. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jun 4, 2022 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @ jdunlop Hmmmm. Your comment has visions of silver baseball bats dancing in my head. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2022 at 14:11
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If they can make this out of pure silver, then pretty much anything non-structural non-load-bearing could be made. Even decorative architecture. Basically, we could replace plastic with it.

Load-bearing gears might need to be alloyed, however.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Far easier to recycle than plastic as well. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 4, 2022 at 21:54
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My biggest concern is structural integrity. And now that I have read some comments, weight.

Also, silver tarnishes HORRIBLY with ANY level of oil or other chemicals (always wear gloves when handling!) It also grows into crystalline structures when around anything corrosive. I work in an industrial electronics plant, and the bars of copper (there is up to and commonly over 1 ton of copper in these units) are coated with silver. But when they go to a place that processes toxic or corrosive materials, they are coated with tin. Otherwise, the silver grows and shorts the system.

Lots of concerns with the viability of silver, unless it is coated with a preservative and/or alloyed for strength and anti-corrosive/etc.

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Electronics were already mentioned, but the big demand would probably come from Zn/Ag batteries, they would replace lead acid batteries.

If silver were widely available since ancient ages it would probably replace lead also for piping. Lead is not very strong, it was used because it was cheap and easy to work with.

Back to modern age, another widespread application would be mirrors and, alloyed with copper, pots and pans. Together with electronics and batteries it would make quite a big demand, so to be still cheap it would have to be really plentiful.

I doubt it would be useful in structural material, but a lot of potential alloys were never tested because silver was out of question from the beginning. Could Silver improve the machinability of a hard metal and be used in small amounts like it happens with Cerium? It is possible. Could Silver in small quantities improve corrosion resistance of some alloys? May be. Lowering the melting point of a brazing alloy? I can see a lot of potential uses, but always niche uses.

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While silver would be interesting, it wouldn't be ideal.

For each specific example you provided, we'll be assuming an alloy of silver, as normal silver is just too soft:

Automobiles, Aeronautics, and Shipbuilding: I'd say silver is a poor choice for these when compared to iron, and especially when compared to aluminum. It weighs too much for Aeronautics in general, as a frame built of it would be almost 1.5x heavier than iron, and Aeronautics is all about shedding weight. As far as shipbuilding goes, it seems possible, so long as the ship is built with greater weight in mind, as iron already doesn't float normally. It would also be a poorer choice for automobiles, as the increased mass would make accidents more likely and more dangerous. Additionally, silver has a worse tensile strength than iron, so those automobiles would be more likely to snap than iron. Additionally, air filled tires would be even worse on these automobiles, and axles would have more issues with alignment as the force on them is greater.

Building construction and as a structural/building material: Well, due to silver's increased mass and decreased tensile strength, it would also be worse than iron, so while it should be able to create frames for buildings, they would all be shorter than ones with steel skeletons. Tall buildings not only have to deal with the weight of a frame, but with wind pressuring them from all sides (and silver's tensile strength means less bending than iron's), so I'd expect a large decrease in height.

Firearms, though, are a different story. Silver would be perfect for bullets - you could use almost any metal, but more readily available ones are better. There's really no reason lead is better for bullets than many other metals, other than tradition by this point.

However, silver would be amazing as a coating for many materials. Pure silver is actually fairly tarnish resistant, with alloyed silver having tarnishing problems. Why is this good? It's basically perfect for a protective lining for pipes, beams, and anything exposed to water or other elements. So in a world where silver is common, I'd expect it not to really replace many other metals (unless they were very rare, like swapping rarities) but to coat metals exposed to the elements.

Also it's antibacterial, like copper. However, as bacteria do need some copper for some proteins, it is not impossible for them to evolve resistance, as they already have some copper processing ability. Silver, on the other hand, is basically alien to their biology. They'll have about as much fun adapting to silver as we do with lead. (not impossible, but far less likely than copper)

In essence, it's bad for structure but can be great for coatings.

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Silver in metallic glasses (for use as BUILDING MATERIAL)

Metallic glasses have high strength and toughness, large elastic limits and brilliant corrosion resistance. Silver-based bulk metallic glasses from the Ag-Mg-Ca ternary and Ag-Mg-Ca-Cu quaternary alloy systems have been discovered. They have high electrical and thermal conductivity combined with the superplastic formability of a metallic glass. Metallic glasses are stronger than high performance steel, hard like ceramic and moldable like plastic.

As told here

Metallic glasses represent one kind of advanced material, very popular in recent decades. These materials are very adaptable like plastics for their manufacturability in very complex shapes. TPF (Thermoplastic forming) based processes seem very good method to process them. These materials can compete with plastics but have metallic properties. They behave as magnetic materials with less hysteresis loss and less eddy current loss making them suitable for transformer and MEMS (Micro-Electromechanical System) applications. These materials exhibit good corrosion resistance, hardness and toughness. Based on the property and application, metallic glasses are good rivals to plastics, metals and ceramics.

As told here

Metallic glass is much stronger and lighter than conventional metals, can be injection-molded like plastic, and will not corrode or rust.

Imagine a razor blade that stays super sharp for a year. A golf club so springy it can drive a ball farther than a titanium club. An artificial hip implant that is stronger and more flexible than current implants. A cell phone case that is almost indestructible.

"In the future a ship made of bulk metallic glass could be five times larger, or weigh five times less," Busch says

OTHER USES

Silver is antibacterial

Plates, spoons and other utensils used for cooking and eating food save food from bacteria. Food left in silverware will not contaminate for longer time. Eating food in a silver plate aids in the battle against free radicals and the rejuvenation of body cells. If silver is cheap, plates, spoons and cooking utensils will be made with silver.

Silver-based ionic liquids

They can be used to clean up petroleum waste products and as separation media.

Wood preservative

Silver can replace toxic chromated copper arsenate as a wood preservative.

Long life batteries

Silver-oxide batteries give up to 40% more run-time than lithium-ion batteries and are much smaller and lighter.

Engines

When steel ball bearings are electroplated with silver, they become stronger than any other type of bearing. Jet engines or helicopter engines rely on silver bearings because they can function continuously and at very high temperatures. Silver acts as a lubricant, reducing friction between the bearing and its housing. This increases the performance and longevity of the engine. Even in the event of an oil pump failure, for instance, silver-plated bearings provide enough lubrication to allow a safe engine shutdown before serious damage can occur.

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