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Silver and Germ-Warfare

For those expecting an explosive piece of investigative journalism, tracing some sinister link between silver and “weapons of mass destruction”, my apologies. When it comes to “germ warfare”, silver’s role is entirely a defensive one.

In my last commentary which dealt with silver’s soaring industrial uses, I received a number of comments and questions concerning (in particular) silver’s anti-microbial properties. As someone who is also just learning about these industrial applications, I was unable to provide good answers to some of these questions, and so it was time to do some research.

In the months that have passed since then, I have not only looked at several of the companies using silver as an anti-microbial agent, but I have also learned a little more about the biological aspects of this application. As a result, I can now explore this subject in greater detail – and provide readers with a more comprehensive analysis.

The first point to make about this technology is that I had (erroneously) referred to this previously as “anti-bacterial” technology, directly implying that it was only effective against bacteria. As I quickly discovered, silver has much broader “anti-microbial” properties – meaning that it kills not only bacteria, but also molds and fungi. This broad spectrum of anti-microbial effects obviously means that the applications for this technology are also much more numerous than I had previously suggested. However, higher dosage requirements for these other microorganisms may tend to reduce applications in these areas.

The next point to make here is that this anti-microbial effect is produced through the release of silver “ions”, the active agent which kills microorganisms. These ions can be released in different ways (and different rates), depending on the precise composition of the anti-microbial substance.

In the case of silver, the three main categories of such substances are “ionic additives”, salts, and metals. The primary difference between these substances is the rate at which they release silver ions, and (conversely) the “durability” or length of time that these substances can maintain their anti-microbial effect. Thus, the type of silver anti-microbial treatment used will depend on the nature of the product being devised.

In the case of “silver body-washes”, and other single-use applications, the silver ions would be delivered through ionic additives, which release these ions at the greatest rate/speed – and are completely soluble in water. On the other hand, with anti-microbial treatments which are intended to be durable (such as clothing or upholstery with these anti-microbial additives), it is important that the ions be released much more gradually – so that the anti-microbial effect lasts for as long as practically possible. For these applications, the “metals” based products are most appropriate.

In between are the salt-based anti-microbial products, which are less water-soluble, and thus have a slower release of ions than ionic additives and a greater duration of effect.

More specifically, I was introduced to a Swiss company, HeiQ Materials, which “manufactures high performance textile effects for the most demanding functionalities”. To explain this in greater detail, HeiQ manufactures “microcomposite” silver- additives which can be used to add anti-microbial properties not only to textiles, but also to medical devices and plastic coatings.

There are several facets to HeiQ’s business model (and products) which should greatly excite silver investors. Most-notably, HeiQ does not manufacture anti-microbial clothing, or upholstery, or many similar products where anti-microbial, silver-based technology can be introduced. Instead, it manufactures an additive which can be relatively easily assimilated (through customized formulations) into the manufacturing processes of companies which are already manufacturing such consumer and commercial products.

What this means is that this emerging technology can be incorporated into our economies far more rapidly than if each individual manufacturer needed to design and engineer their own anti-microbial products, one by one. The other aspect of HeiQ’s silver-based technology which I found especially exciting was that it is an extremely flexible technology.

In the case of anti-microbial textiles, it can either be essentially woven into these textiles or applied to the surface in a coating. The trade-off here is obvious. Weaving the silver into the textile results in a slower rate of ion-release, and thus greater durability. Applying this to the textile surface increases the rate of ion-release (and the potency of the anti-microbial effect), but with a decrease in durability as a consequence.

As a reminder to readers, in commercial terms there are two very different uses for this technology. Polyester-silver sportswear uses this technology to make sportswear garments odor-resistant – since it is the growth of bacteria which produces odor (through perspiration).

Otherwise, its anti-microbial properties are health-related. Armies provide soldiers with silver-laced socks to prevent or at least retard many forms of foot-infections (and undoubtedly these soldiers also appreciate the anti-odor effect). Beyond this, the ability to incorporate this into both clothing, bedding and upholstery means that the potential uses (and locations) of silver-based anti-microbial textiles are virtually infinite, but naturally begin with hospitals, labs, doctors’ offices, and all other health-care facilities where there is a need to prevent/control “cross-contamination”.

I have previously openly speculated that the next (gigantic) market which could be “penetrated” with such products is the transportation sector. Reinforcing this assertion was a recent news item which alerted people in North America to a dangerous, nearly untreatable form of bacteria – which is being “imported” across the ocean through the increasing rate of “medical tourism”.

For those unfamiliar with this term, it is a relatively new economic phenomenon where people (primarily Americans) are traveling to other countries to obtain medical treatment of various sorts – because they are unable or unwilling to bear the expense of obtaining such treatment in the United States. For economic reasons, India is a very popular destination for such travelers – and also a home to this deadly bacteria.

This provides two, separate incentives for incorporating this technology into at least some forms of transportation, with trans-oceanic flights being an obvious starting-point. Not only could this be seen by airlines as cost-effective with respect to potential legal liability for the spreading of diseases among passengers, but governments now also have a motive for introducing such technology: reducing the “mobility” of highly-resistant and/or dangerous microorganisms in being transmitted continent-to-continent, through travel.

With the ability to introduce this technology either into or onto textiles, this allows various corporate and government entities considering such technology to choose the optimal level of cost-effectiveness when using these anti-microbial textiles.

The capacity to incorporate this into plastics (via coatings) adds an utterly new dimension to this technology. Household items for food-storage and food-preparation immediately leap to mind, as well as an infinite variety of uses in the nursery – for health-conscious new parents. Then there is the commercial side of the food industry. From food-manufacturers all the way to restaurants, there will obviously be an enormous demand for such products – providing they can be delivered to potential users as a cost-effective innovation for their businesses.

On the other hand, as I have pointed out previously, when it comes to the issue of legal liability, what is and isn’t “cost-effective” can literally change over-night. If this technology is a viable way for these businesses to reduce the risks of health hazards to the “consumers” of their products, and these businesses choose not to do so, our legal system (and its judges) have demonstrated on many occasions in the past that they are ready and willing to impose hefty legal damages against companies judged to be “negligent” in not taking advantage of such health-protection.

The ability to coat medical devices with this anti-microbial protection is both a time-saver (in reducing the time/effort needed to keep such instruments sterile) as well as obviously reducing the number of infections transmitted in this manner.

Adding to the long list of potential, silver-based anti-microbial products are paints. In particular, the ability of such paints to greatly retard the spread of mold makes this product enormously appealing to a wide variety of users.

Just recently, a reader pointed me toward another interesting angle on this subject: gold. In particular, an article on the World Gold Council web-site discusses the recent discovery that the addition of gold particles to silver-based anti-microbial products increases their durability, through retarding the rate at which ions are released.

It was inclear from the material I saw whether this was viable technology at current bullion prices (most particularly, the gold/silver price ratio). However, with ardent silver bulls (like myself) expecting the current, extreme gold/silver ratio to collapse dramatically in the years ahead, this combination technology may be a valuable industrial tool in the future.

At the same time, I must also provide a cautionary note for investors. Silver-based technologies are not the only option when it comes to anti-microbial textiles. I came across another company which manufacturers an anti-microbial treatment for the garments of hospital workers, and does not use silver-based technology. While this technology is also apparently suitable for sportswear, there does not seem to be nearly the same number of potential applications for this non-silver technology.

According to HeiQ, silver is a relatively new product for use with textiles. Alternative technologies include quaternary ammoniums, and Triclosan (which has been recently de-listed from Oekotex, an international testing and certification system for textiles). Silver is purportedly the “biocide” product with the broadest bacterial-killing spectrum, and the most “wash-fast” technology – which presumably means treatments which maintain efficacy after washing/laundering.

Naturally cost-effectiveness will be an important factor in the future of these competing technologies. Silver-bulls may be worried that a sudden spike in the price of silver could kill-off innovation and expansion in the use of silver as an anti-microbial agent. This greatly depends upon the precise application involved. With respect to these silver-based products, research conducted by HeiQ shows that (depending on the product) silver is used in concentrations ranging from 1/1,000th (by weight) to only 10 ppm (parts per million).

This is consistent with my own previous calculation regarding the silver used in polyester sportswear. By weight, such products only use 1/40,000th of silver, relative to the weight of all other inputs. This means (as I have often observed before) that such silver-based products will  be extremely price-inelastic. What that equates to is that the demand for such products will change very little – even with very large increases in the price of silver. Given this parameter, price does not appear to be the most important determinant in a longer term analysis of which is the superior technology.

In summary, the combination of flexibility and efficacy seems to provide a significant advantage to silver-based technology in the “battle” against microorganisms – and especially bacteria – while its price inelasticity means that demand will stay strong, even in the face of large increases in the price of silver.

With “super-bugs”, and new issues such as “medical tourism”, the importance of such technology can only grow with time. This puts silver in the unique position of being a good which may not only save you financially, but also may save your life.

[Disclosure: I hold no position in HeiQ Materials]

Disclosure: none