The Importance of Industrial Uses
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different uses of silver (NYSEARCA:SLV). Industrial uses of silver are, cumulatively, the largest demand sources of the metal. While industrial demand has been declining since 2010, the Silver Institute expects that demand to grow and outpace global GDP through 2016.
Looking for the next "big thing" for industrial silver is a key consideration when investing in it. For example, the photovoltaic industry used only about 1 million ounces of silver in 2002. That figure grew to about 40 million ounces in 2013 (even after substantial thrifting has lowered consumption recently). During that time period, the additional demand helped boost silver prices.
Many people now consider silver's antimicrobial properties to be the next "big thing" to boost demand of the metal. Corning's announcement of Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass earlier this year could turn out to be a catalyst that kicks off similar products in the future and boosts demand for silver.
Demand for Antimicrobial Uses
The antimicrobial effects of silver have been known for thousands of years. While the antimicrobial properties of the metal are fairly well known and quantified, the process itself is not well understood.
In ancient times, water was often transported in silver containers (by those who could afford it) in order to keep it fresh. In modern times silver is still being used to purify water, even in space.
Silver nanofibers are being woven into clothing for hygienic purposes.
And now hypochondriacs everywhere can celebrate glass that kills bacteria thanks to Corning's new Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass. Corning's James R. Steiner, senior vice president and general manager, Corning Specialty Materials had this to say about it:
"Corning's Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass inhibits the growth of algae, mold, mildew, fungi, and bacteria because of its built-in antimicrobial property, which is intrinsic to the glass and effective for the lifetime of a device."
Coating a material with a thin layer of silver is actually not a particularly new technology. From nucryst.com:
In 1991, NUCRYST developed a process of forming a thin film of silver nanocrystals to base materials utilizing a custom synthesis called reactive magnetron sputtering, which is a type of physical vapor deposition. The silver nanocrystals are formed atom by atom in a disordered fashion.
Since this early discovery of its proprietary silver nanocrystalline coating, NUCRYST went on to manufacture, receive regulatory clearance for, and launch the first product, Acticoat™ with SILCRYST™ nanocrystals antimicrobial barrier burn dressings in 1998, with its own sales force.
While silver has been used for ages (literally) as an antimicrobial material, soon the new glass will almost certainly account for silver's greatest market penetration of an antimicrobial surface. According to Corning, there are currently over 2 billion devices from 33 major brands that use Gorilla Glass.
The Future of Antimicrobial Silver Surfaces
According to this article, there is a 1 in 6 chance that your phone has fecal matter on it. Well, that's the headline anyway. What was actually found was E. coli, which is fecal in origin. The article goes on to note that, "The bugs we found are more or less harmless," but clearly the general population worries considerably about bacteria and germs. Articles and news stories like that one often get a popular buzz going for the publisher.
Whether or not people should be so worried about bacteria, viruses, etc., the fact is that industry is going to take advantage of the demand for the public's appetite for sanitation -- witness the use of hand sanitizer, which used to be found almost solely in hospitals. From 2009-2012, over $836 million was spent on hand sanitizer in the US. (source: SymphonyIRI Group)
Antimicrobial silver surfaces should see excellent growth over the next several years. In addition to other glass manufacturers following Corning's lead, I expect to see a healthy (pun intended) pickup of new products for other antimicrobial coatings and surfaces.
According to the Silver Institute, the global antimicrobial coatings market is about $1.5 billion. They expect it to grow at a double digit pace in the long term.
Silver is likely to be a major beneficiary of growth in the antimicrobial market. In addition to glass surfaces, the use of nanoparticles of the metal is an excellent method for impregnating other surfaces such as would dressings, cotton fibers, cutting boards, food packaging, and even yoga mats. According to microbewiki.com:
Silver nanoparticles are a form of silver of particular interest because of their easy production, high antimicrobial activity, and ability to be incorporated into a diverse range of products. With the ever increasing number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and silver's low toxicity to humans, the use of silver as an antimicrobial agent is an exciting topic with a great deal of relevance to many fields of study and industry.
How much silver is being used as a surface biocide? This is a very difficult question to answer as manufacturers such as Corning are not transparent about it. With regards to Europe, this article noted that:
The situation for treated articles is similar to that for biocide products with respect to the lack of transparency. To date, reliable statistics on the amounts of biocidal active substances and biocidal products that enter the EU market each year and for what purpose can be found neither on the relevant websites of the competent authorities, nor in annual reports published by manufacturers, processors, or suppliers.
According to this article written in 2010, 320 tons of nanosilver are produced and used worldwide each year. That equates to a little over 10 million ounces. While I could find no data that breaks that number down further, it is my opinion that the majority of the nanosilver production goes into antimicrobial uses. Accounting for growth since 2010, I think it is conservative to say that in 2014 the amount used for antimicrobial surfaces will be around 10 million ounces.
Silver's use as a biocide on surfaces is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million ounces per year. Thanks to ever-increasing demand for antimicrobial surfaces such as Gorilla Glass, the market is expected to grow quickly. According to grandviewresearch.com:
The global market for silver powder based antimicrobial coatings was valued at USD 556.9 million in 2013 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13.1% from 2014 to 2020.
Assuming that CAGR on our 10 million oz number, which includes non-powder based coatings, by 2020 we would see demand more than double to about 21 million oz per year.
The antimicrobial coatings market is a key one for investors of silver to keep an eye on. It appears to be poised to become a substantial demand driver for the metal in the long-term.
Disclosure: The author is long SLV.
The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.