In folklore, silver can stop creatures like werewolves and vampires in their tracks, but this element's real-life properties might be even stranger than fiction. Silver has antimicrobial powers, is the shiniest element, and is the best electric conductor on the periodic table.
Now scientists have discovered yet another of this miraculous metal's superpowers: under the right conditions, it can emit light, reports Phys.org. In fact, silver can emanate such a glow that scientists are hoping to develop silver-based replacements for fluorescent lamps and LEDs.
Silver doesn't glow entirely on its own. It takes embedding clusters of silver atoms in structures called zeolites, naturally occurring porous materials full of small channels and voids. Although scientists have observed the bizarre gleaming ability of silver encased in zeolites before, it isn't until now that they have figured out exactly how it works.
The process has to do with how clusters of silver behave differently when they become caught in a zeolite's void.
"We irradiated a mixture of silver clusters with synchrotron radiation at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble," explained researcher Didier Grandjean. "What is good about this is that it provides us with a lot of information on the structure and properties of the material. However, as we specifically wanted to look at the optical properties, we used a new method that deliberately only measured the emitted light. This way, we were sure that we were only looking at the specific particles responsible for the light."
Researchers discovered that only clusters of four silver atoms emit light, and only when the void they are trapped within is surrounded by water molecules. In this setup, the cluster essentially begins acting like a single atom rather than a cluster of individual atoms, and a couple of electrons from the silver begin to move freely. This free movement is what generates the light.
"[The free electrons] decay from a higher to a lower energy level, resulting in a certain shade of green light. In turn, the energy levels are determined by the chemical properties of the super atom," explained professor Peter Lievens.
So there you have it: glowing silver. Sit down, gold. This news pretty much shores up silver's place as the most wondrous precious metal on the periodic table. It's beautiful (the shiniest), it disinfects, it's the best conductor ... and it glows. Throw in the off-chance that you should happen to stumble across a werewolf, and silver has all the bases covered.
The study was published in the journal Science.