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The Environmental Impact of Silver Refining: A Shift of Paradigm

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Chapter Summary

The environmental impact of silver production in New Spain and Mexico in the period from the 16c to the end of the 19c was determined by the choice, or imposition, of refining process. In the absence of direct data, the probable breakdown of silver production via refining process is based on the information in the primary tax registers in New Spain, by Caja, and the known chemistry and energy requirements of each process. It is estimated that 64 % of its silver was produced by the patio process, and 36 % by smelting. Even then, for nearly a century (mid 17c to mid 18c), when mercury supplies or restricted credit became a problem, the production of silver is projected to have been shared equally between these two processes. In the case of 19c Mexico, only a more general projection is possible, that assumes 80 % was refined using mercury, and 20 % by smelting.Using the ratios calculated in the previous chapters for the consumption of reagents and energy, and for the formation of by-products per kg of silver refined, a quantitative picture emerges of smelting creating a much heavier stress on the environment than the use of mercury in the refining of silver ores. Lead fumes and the consumption of woodlands as charcoal were the main environmental impact vectors from historical silver refining in New Spain. The scenario of major amounts of mercury being voided into the atmosphere in the Hispanic New World during the heating of the silver amalgam is incorrect and misleading. Virtually all the physical loss of mercury was via liquid mercury washed away in the nearby streams to the haciendas, or impregnating their soil. It was the chemistry of the patio process, and not its physical facet, that consumed the greater fraction of the mercury required by the process, converting it into solid and insoluble calomel. The patio process saved New Spain from the much greater environmental impact of smelting all its silver ores.



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