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Visualized: The Silver Mining Journey From Ore to More

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The following content is sponsored by Silver X.

how silver is mined

The Silver Mining Journey From Ore to More

Silver has been a monetary metal and used in jewelry for thousands of years, but today, silver is powering the green energy transition and new tech innovation. With the greatest electrical conductivity of all metals, silver is used in electrical contacts and circuit boards, along with solar panels, electric vehicles, and 5G devices.

Behind the large collection of silver-dependent products and technologies is an active mining industry that must supply the necessary metal. So how exactly is the silver mined and produced?

This graphic from our sponsor Silver X walks us through how we mine and refine silver along with the growing demand for the metal which will fuel the economy of the future.

Getting Silver Out of the Ground

Like many other metals, silver is found in the Earth’s crust and primarily mined using heavy machinery and explosives.

Once a silver bearing ore body has been identified and can be mined at a reasonable cost, the mining method is chosen depending on the nature of the ore body along with other factors like location and infrastructure:

  • Open pit mining: Best for mining large amounts of lower grade silver ore near the surface
  • Underground shaft mining: Best for following and mining high-grade veins of silver ore further underground

While in open pit mining a huge volume of land is displaced across a large surface area, it is typically safer overall compared to underground mines.

Despite their differences, both methods ultimately use explosives to break up chunks of ore into easily transportable pieces that are then brought to crushing facilities for the next step.

Crushing and Separating Mined Silver Ore

Once the ore has been mined and transported out of the mine, it goes through a variety of crushers which break down the ore into small chunks. The chunks of silver ore are crushed and ground into a fine powder, allowing for the separation process to begin.

There are two primary methods of silver separation, and both involve mixing the silver ore powder with water to form a slurry.

In the flotation process of separation, chemicals are added to the slurry to make any silver and lead water repellent. Air bubbles are then blown through the slurry, with the silver and lead sticking to the bubbles and rising to the top of the slurry where they are separated and dried out.

In the tank leaching and Merill-Crowe process, cyanide is added to the slurry to ensure the silver dissolves into the solution. Then, solids are filtered out in a settling tank, with the silver solution deaerated before zinc powder is added. The solution then passes through a set of filter plates and presses which collect the zinc and silver precipitate which is dried off.

Processing and Refining to Pure Silver

Once the silver ore has been largely broken down and separated from much of the waste rock, the silver must be completely extracted from the remaining metals. Typically, two different processes are used depending on the other metal that must be separated from.

  • Electrolytic Refining (Copper): This method places the copper-silver concentrate in an electrolytic cell within an electrolyte solution. Electricity is passed through the solution, resulting in the copper and silver separating out to opposite ends of the cell. The process is repeated until only silver remains, which is then collected and smelted to remove any remaining impurities.
  • Parkes Process (Lead): This method adds zinc to the molten lead-silver solution, since silver is attracted to zinc while lead is repelled. The silver and zinc compound floats to the top and is skimmed off before being heated and distilled until only pure silver remains.

Silver’s Growing Industry and Investment Demand

In 2020, 784.4 million ounces of silver were mined across the world according to Metals Focus. While production is forecasted to increase by ~8% to reach 848.5 million ounces in 2021, it’s still greatly outpaced by growing demand for silver.

Silver demand is forecasted to see a 15% YoY increase from 2020’s 896.1 million ounces to 1,033 million ounces forecasted for 2021. Solar panels have been one of the largest industrial drivers for silver demand, with demand more than doubling since 2014, from 48.4 million ounces to 105 million ounces forecasted for 2021.

YearSilver Production (in million ounces)YoY % ChangeTotal Silver Demand (in million ounces)YoY % Change
2017862.9-4.1%966.0-3.1%
2018848.4-1.7%989.82.5%
2019833.2-1.8%995.40.6%
2020784.4-5.9%896.1-9.9%
2021F848.58.2%1,033.015.3%

Investment has also been a key demand driver for silver, especially since Reddit’s WallStreetBets crowd began pursuing the possibility of a silver short squeeze. Net physical investment demand rose 29.4% from 2017’s 156.2 million ounces to 200.5 million ounces in 2020, and 2021 is forecasted to see a 26.1% increase with a net investment demand of 252.8 million ounces.

Whether driven by investors or industries, silver is in high demand as the world shifts to newer and greener technologies. The process of silver mining, extraction, and refining will continue to play a pivotal role in supplying the world with the silver it needs.

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Electrification

Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem

In 2020, China produced 59% of natural graphite and over 80% of battery anode material. Here’s a look at the graphite supply problem.

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natural graphite

Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem

Graphite is a critical mineral for lithium-ion batteries, and its battery demand is expected to grow ten-fold by 2030.

Meeting this increasing demand will require a higher supply of both natural graphite and its synthetic counterpart. However, graphite’s entire supply chain is heavily reliant on China, which makes it vulnerable to disruptions while creating environmental challenges.

This infographic from our sponsor Northern Graphite highlights China’s stronghold over the graphite supply chain and outlines the need for new natural graphite mines.

China’s Dominance in the Graphite Supply Chain

From mining natural graphite to manufacturing battery anodes, China dominates every stage of the graphite supply chain.

For example, in 2020, 59% of global natural graphite production came from China. Mozambique, the second-largest producer, churned out 120,000 tonnes—just one-fifth of Chinese production.

Country2020E production, tonnes% of total
China 🇨🇳650,00059.1%
Mozambique 🇲🇿120,00010.9%
Brazil 🇧🇷95,0008.6%
Madagascar 🇲🇬47,0004.3%
India 🇮🇳34,0003.1%
Russia 🇷🇺24,0002.2%
Ukraine 🇺🇦19,0001.7%
Norway 🇳🇴15,0001.4%
Pakistan 🇵🇰13,0001.2%
Canada 🇨🇦10,0000.9%
Rest of the World 🌎73,0006.6%
Total1,100,000100%

China’s massive output makes the other top nine countries look substantially smaller in terms of natural graphite production. Moreover, China also dominates the manufacturing of synthetic graphite and the conversion of graphite into anode material for batteries.

In 2018, China produced nearly 80% of all synthetic graphite, and in 2019, it was responsible for 86% of all battery anode material production. This dependence on graphite supply from China puts the supply chain at risk of political disruptions and makes it unsustainable for the long term.

Unsustainable Production: Natural Graphite vs Synthetic Graphite

The carbon footprint of manufacturing partly depends on the source of energy used in production.

Coal dominates China’s energy mix with a 58% share, followed by petroleum and other liquids. This increases the carbon footprint of all production and especially that of synthetic graphite, which involves energy-intensive heat treatment of petroleum coke.

Energy sourceType% of China's energy consumption (2019)
Coal Fossil fuel58%
Petroleum and other liquidsFossil fuel20%
Hydro Renewable8%
Natural gasFossil fuel8%
Other renewablesRenewable5%
NuclearNon-renewable2%
TotalN/A100%

Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.

One study found that producing one kg of synthetic graphite releases 4.9kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in addition to smaller amounts of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. While the carbon footprint of natural graphite is substantially smaller, it’s likely that China’s dependence on coal contributes to emissions from production.

Furthermore, concentrated production in China means that all this graphite travels long distances before reaching Western markets like the United States. These extensive shipping distances further exacerbate the risk of disruptions in the graphite supply chain.

The Need for New Sources

As the demand for graphite increases, developing a resilient graphite supply chain is crucial to the European Union and the U.S., both of which have declared graphite a critical mineral.

New graphite mines outside China will be key to meeting graphite’s rising demand and combating a potential supply deficit.

Northern Graphite is positioned to deliver natural graphite in a secure, sustainable, and transparent manner for the green economy.

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Electrification

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

In 2020, solar power saw its largest-ever annual capacity expansion at 127 gigawatts. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country.

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Solar Power by Country

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

The world is adopting renewable energy at an unprecedented pace, and solar power is leading the way.

Despite a 4.5% fall in global energy demand in 2020, renewable energy technologies showed promising progress. While the growth in renewables was strong across the board, solar power led from the front with 127 gigawatts installed in 2020, its largest-ever annual capacity expansion.

The above infographic uses data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to map solar power capacity by country in 2021. This includes both solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power capacity.

The Solar Power Leaderboard

From the Americas to Oceania, countries in virtually every continent (except Antarctica) added more solar to their mix last year. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country at the beginning of 2021:

CountryInstalled capacity, megawattsWatts* per capita% of world total
China 🇨🇳 254,35514735.6%
U.S. 🇺🇸 75,57223110.6%
Japan 🇯🇵 67,0004989.4%
Germany 🇩🇪 53,7835937.5%
India 🇮🇳 39,211325.5%
Italy 🇮🇹 21,6003453.0%
Australia 🇦🇺 17,6276372.5%
Vietnam 🇻🇳 16,504602.3%
South Korea 🇰🇷 14,5752172.0%
Spain 🇪🇸 14,0891862.0%
United Kingdom 🇬🇧 13,5632001.9%
France 🇫🇷 11,7331481.6%
Netherlands 🇳🇱 10,2133961.4%
Brazil 🇧🇷 7,881221.1%
Turkey 🇹🇷 6,668730.9%
South Africa 🇿🇦 5,990440.8%
Taiwan 🇹🇼 5,8171720.8%
Belgium 🇧🇪 5,6463940.8%
Mexico 🇲🇽 5,644350.8%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 5,3601140.8%
Poland 🇵🇱 3,936340.6%
Canada 🇨🇦 3,325880.5%
Greece 🇬🇷 3,2472580.5%
Chile 🇨🇱 3,2051420.4%
Switzerland 🇨🇭 3,1182950.4%
Thailand 🇹🇭 2,988430.4%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪 2,5391850.4%
Austria 🇦🇹 2,2201780.3%
Czech Republic 🇨🇿 2,0731940.3%
Hungary 🇭🇺 1,9531310.3%
Egypt 🇪🇬 1,694170.2%
Malaysia 🇲🇾 1,493280.2%
Israel 🇮🇱 1,4391340.2%
Russia 🇷🇺 1,42870.2%
Sweden 🇸🇪 1,417630.2%
Romania 🇷🇴 1,387710.2%
Jordan 🇯🇴 1,3591000.2%
Denmark 🇩🇰 1,3001860.2%
Bulgaria 🇧🇬 1,0731520.2%
Philippines 🇵🇭 1,04890.1%
Portugal 🇵🇹 1,025810.1%
Argentina 🇦🇷 764170.1%
Pakistan 🇵🇰 73760.1%
Morocco 🇲🇦 73460.1%
Slovakia 🇸🇰 593870.1%
Honduras 🇭🇳 514530.1%
Algeria 🇩🇿 448100.1%
El Salvador 🇸🇻 429660.1%
Iran 🇮🇷 41450.1%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 409120.1%
Finland 🇫🇮 391390.1%
Dominican Republic 🇩🇴 370340.1%
Peru 🇵🇪 331100.05%
Singapore 🇸🇬 329450.05%
Bangladesh 🇧🇩 30120.04%
Slovenia 🇸🇮 2671280.04%
Uruguay 🇺🇾 256740.04%
Yemen 🇾🇪 25380.04%
Iraq 🇮🇶 21650.03%
Cambodia 🇰🇭 208120.03%
Cyprus 🇨🇾 2001470.03%
Panama 🇵🇦 198460.03%
Luxembourg 🇱🇺 1952440.03%
Malta 🇲🇹 1843120.03%
Indonesia 🇮🇩 17210.02%
Cuba 🇨🇺 163140.02%
Belarus 🇧🇾 159170.02%
Senegal 🇸🇳 15580.02%
Norway 🇳🇴 152170.02%
Lithuania 🇱🇹 148370.02%
Namibia 🇳🇦 145550.02%
New Zealand 🇳🇿 142290.02%
Estonia 🇪🇪 130980.02%
Bolivia 🇧🇴 120100.02%
Oman 🇴🇲 109210.02%
Colombia 🇨🇴 10720.01%
Kenya 🇰🇪 10620.01%
Guatemala 🇬🇹10160.01%
Croatia 🇭🇷 85170.01%
World total 🌎 713,97083100.0%

*1 megawatt = 1,000,000 watts.

China is the undisputed leader in solar installations, with over 35% of global capacity. What’s more, the country is showing no signs of slowing down. It has the world’s largest wind and solar project in the pipeline, which could add another 400,000MW to its clean energy capacity.

Following China from afar is the U.S., which recently surpassed 100,000MW of solar power capacity after installing another 50,000MW in the first three months of 2021. Annual solar growth in the U.S. has averaged an impressive 42% over the last decade. Policies like the solar investment tax credit, which offers a 26% tax credit on residential and commercial solar systems, have helped propel the industry forward.

Although Australia hosts a fraction of China’s solar capacity, it tops the per capita rankings due to its relatively low population of 26 million people. The Australian continent receives the highest amount of solar radiation of any continent, and over 30% of Australian households now have rooftop solar PV systems.

China: The Solar Champion

In 2020, President Xi Jinping stated that China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, and the country is taking steps to get there.

China is a leader in the solar industry, and it seems to have cracked the code for the entire solar supply chain. In 2019, Chinese firms produced 66% of the world’s polysilicon, the initial building block of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) panels. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of solar cells came from China, along with 72% of the world’s PV panels.

With that said, it’s no surprise that 5 of the world’s 10 largest solar parks are in China, and it will likely continue to build more as it transitions to carbon neutrality.

What’s Driving the Rush for Solar Power?

The energy transition is a major factor in the rise of renewables, but solar’s growth is partly due to how cheap it has become over time. Solar energy costs have fallen exponentially over the last decade, and it’s now the cheapest source of new energy generation.

Since 2010, the cost of solar power has seen a 85% decrease, down from $0.28 to $0.04 per kWh. According to MIT researchers, economies of scale have been the single-largest factor in continuing the cost decline for the last decade. In other words, as the world installed and made more solar panels, production became cheaper and more efficient.

This year, solar costs are rising due to supply chain issues, but the rise is likely to be temporary as bottlenecks resolve.

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