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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

The Road to EV Adoption: Fast Lanes and Potholes

Electric vehicles are a key piece of the clean energy puzzle. So what’s driving EV adoption, and what’s slowing it down?

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EV adoption

The Road to EV Adoption: Fast Lanes and Potholes

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a key piece of the clean energy puzzle.

However, the road to electrification is influenced by various factors. While some are helping speed up the switch to EVs, others are slowing it down.

The above infographic from Rock Tech Lithium outlines the fast lanes accelerating mainstream EV adoption, and the potholes slowing it down.

The Fast Lanes Accelerating EV Adoption

From government policies to falling battery prices, a number of factors are putting EVs in the fast lane to consumer adoption.

Factor #1:

Promoting Policies

The shift to a clean energy future is slowly moving from a goal to a reality.

Governments around the world have made automobile electrification a key part of public policy. More than 20 countries are targeting a complete phase-out of vehicles that emit greenhouse gases over the next two decades. Furthermore, 35 countries have pledged for net-zero economies by 2050, where EVs will play a key role.

As an example, here’s a recent tweet that U.S. President Joe Biden wrote before signing an executive order to make 50% of the U.S. auto fleet electric by 2030:

“The future of the auto industry is electric—and made in America.”

—President Biden on Twitter

Given the increasing importance of EVs, it’s no surprise that governments are not only promoting auto electrification but also incentivizing it.

Factor #2:

Consumer Awareness

The rapid growth of the EV market is partly due to consumers that are choosing to go electric.

Rising awareness around the risks of climate change as well as vehicle improvements from EV manufacturers is spurring EV adoption among consumers. Between 2015 and 2020, consumer spending on EVs increased by 561%, up from $18 billion to $119 billion.

As more consumers switch to EVs, the market will continue to grow.

Factor #3:

More Models

EV manufacturers are recognizing the need for a wider variety of vehicles to meet the needs of different consumers.

The number of available EV models has increased from 86 in 2015 to over 360 in 2020, and thanks to recent announcements from the auto industry, this trend is likely to extend over the next decade.

Company# of New EV Models AnnouncedYear
Volkswagen752025
Ford402022
GM302025
Hyundai-Kia1292025
BMW252023
Renault-Nissan2202022
Toyota152025
Total234N/A

1Hyundai is the parent company of Kia Motors.
2Refers to the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
Source: IEA

With more models available, consumers have a wider variety of cars to choose from, reducing the barriers to EV adoption.

Factor #4:

Falling Battery Prices

Batteries are the most expensive and important components of EVs.

Improvements in battery technology, in addition to expanding production, have driven down the cost of EV batteries. As battery costs fall, so do EV prices, bringing EVs closer to price-parity with gas-powered cars.

YearBattery Pack Price ($/kWh)% Price Drop Since 2010
2010$1,1910%
2011$92422%
2012$72639%
2013$66844%
2014$59250%
2015$38468%
2016$29575%
2017$22181%
2018$18185%
2019$15787%
2020$13789%

Source: BloombergNEF

According to BloombergNEF, at the battery pack price point of $100/kWh, EV prices will become competitive with gas-powered cars, providing a boost to electrification.

All of the above factors are playing a major role in accelerating the EV transition. So what’s slowing it down?

The Potholes Slowing Down EV Adoption

Although the EV market is growing exponentially, it’s still in its early days, with various obstacles to overcome on the way to mainstream penetration.

Pothole #1:

The Supply of Battery Metals

EV batteries rely on the properties of various battery metals to power EVs. In fact, a single EV contains around 207 kg of metals.

As EV adoption grows, the demand for these critical minerals is expected to reach unprecedented highs. In turn, this could result in supply shortages for metals like lithium, cobalt, and graphite, potentially slowing down the growth of the EV market.

To avoid potential shortages, EV manufacturers like Tesla and Volkswagen are vertically integrating to mine their own metals, while governments work to build domestic and independent metal supply chains.

Pothole #2:

Charging Infrastructure

With more EVs on the roads, drivers need more places to plug in and recharge.

However, most countries are lagging behind in the installation of public chargers. The global average ratio of public chargers to EV stock is less than 0.15. This means that on average, there are less than 3 chargers for every 20 EVs.

But there are signs of optimism. Global charging infrastructure has doubled since 2017, and governments are incentivizing charger installations with subsidies and tax rebates.

Pothole #3:

Charging Times

While filling up gas tanks takes less than five minutes, it can take up to eight hours to fully charge an EV battery.

Fast chargers that use direct current can fully charge EVs in a couple of hours, but they’re more expensive to install. However, the majority of publicly available chargers are slow, making it inconvenient for drivers to charge on the go.

As charging technology improves, faster chargers are being developed to boost charge times. According to Bloomberg, new ultra-fast chargers can fully charge EVs in less than 30 minutes. Furthermore, the market share of fast chargers is expected to grow from 15% today to 27% by 2030.

Pothole #4:

Range Anxiety

Compared to gas-powered vehicles, EVs do not go the distance yet.

Limited driving ranges are known to cause “range anxiety”—the fear of running out of power—among EV drivers, presenting a hurdle for mainstream EV adoption. Additionally, the lack of charging infrastructure reinforces the problem of limited ranges.

However, consistent improvements in battery technology are resulting in longer driving ranges. Between 2015 and 2020, the average range for battery EVs increased by 60%. With further technological improvements, extended ranges will allow EVs be compete more aggressively with their gas-guzzling counterparts.

The Decade of the Electric Vehicle

The EV market is growing at a remarkable rate. EV makers sold around three million vehicles in 2020, up 155% from just over one million vehicles sold in 2017.

With several factors driving EV adoption and stakeholders working to overcome the industry’s obstacles, mainstream adoption of EVs is on the horizon.

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Electrification

How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

Solar power is essential for the clean energy transition, but how much land is needed to power the U.S. using solar panels?

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How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

The Biden administration has set a goal of reaching 100% clean electricity throughout the U.S. by 2035, and solar power is a key for this American energy transition.

In the last decade alone, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 42% in the U.S. thanks to federal tax credits, declining costs, and increasing demand. It is projected that more than one in seven American homes will have a solar power system by 2030.

To put this trend into perspective, this graphic uses data from the United States Department of Energy to see how much land would be needed to power the entire country with solar panels.

Solar Panels Across the Ocean State

The U.S. has 102.9 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity which is equivalent to 965 square miles, roughly the size of the country’s smallest state, Rhode Island. This current solar capacity generates enough electricity to power 18.6 million American homes, which is nearly 13% of the nation’s households.

According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, roughly 22,000 square miles of solar panel-filled land (about the size of Lake Michigan) would be required to power the entire country, including all 141 million households and businesses, based on 13-14% efficiency for solar modules.

Many solar panels, however, reach 20% efficiency, which could reduce the necessary area to just about 10,000 square miles, equivalent to the size of Lake Erie.

Solar Installations Spreading Across the States

Today, solar represents only 3% of the total U.S. electrical generation.

While California has traditionally dominated the market, other states like Florida and Texas are expanding rapidly, boosted by the residential market.

Large companies with clean energy goals such as Walmart, Apple, Target and Amazon have also helped push solar adoption to near-record levels in 2021.

How much land is needed to power the U.S. with solar?

Despite having a high installation cost, the technology tends to bring savings in the long term. An average-sized residential system has dropped from a price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 in 2020. Along with this, solar panels can save between $10,000-$30,000 over a 30-year lifetime.

Between land and rooftops, the United States has more than enough space to build all the solar panels necessary to power the country. Until then, the future of clean electricity will also depend on hydro, nuclear, geothermal, and wind energy.

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