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Home > Business > Business Headline > Commodities

Meet India's 'Silver Crorepati'

Sreekumar Raghavan/Commodity Online | May 17, 2007 11:28 IST

It may sound like Ripley's Believe it or Not. Our hospitals have the potential to generate crores of rupees worth silver every year.

Read this story of A Rameshan Nair, a school dropout who learned to extract silver from used X-ray films and hypo-fixer waste solution and has already made a fortune.

When the X-ray films are washed in the hype-fixer solution in hospital laboratories the silver halide coating is partially washed off to obtain the picture of the organ X-rayed. The hypo-fixer waste solution is now collected by hospitals and sold to dealers. These dealers extract silver and sell it to ornament makers or back to industry.

Similarly used X-ray films can be washed again in tanks and silver halide or bromide coating is extracted from the washed water using a chemical process.

Fifteen years ago X-ray films and hypo-fixer solutions used to wash X-ray films were wasted as nobody knew how to recycle it. Rameshan Nair learned about it from a friend who guided him to M Mohammed Ali, a Singaporean settled in Madras. Rameshan Nair worked under Mohammed Ali for six months and learned hands-on the techniques of the trade. Those involved in this trade in the country have by and large been trained under Mohamed Ali, Rameshan Nair claims.

"However, it is not an easy job. You require dedication and minimum one month learning to understand the whole process," Rameshan Nair told Commodity Online at his production facility attached to his house near Kottayam Medical College.

He showed how the colour of the hypo-fixer waste solution turned to yellow with the addition of caustic soda and later turned to black with the addition of sodium sulphide. When the water is later filtered what remains is a black semi-solid residue.

The residue is then put in an earthen pot and put into a furnace filled with low ash metallurgical coke. Hot air is blasted into the furnace so much so that the pot becomes red hot after about an hour. He puts another earthen pot bottoms-up with a hole drilled in the bottom. When the pots are sufficiently heated liquid silver rises to the top of the pot.

Carefully using gongs and wearing a helmet Rameshan Nair pours the hot liquid into a mould. After cooling, he breaks the mould to yield silver pieces which is then sold to jewellery makers.

He says all the medical colleges in the state together generate over 100 kg of silver every year. Without corruption, the medical colleges can easily sell Rs 40 lakh worth hypo-fixer waste solution every year, Rameshan Nair added.

How would you know whether there is silver in the hypo-fixer? For that you can use thin foil of paper called a Silver Estimator which can be dipped into the solution. Based on the colour change the silver content can be estimated.

Recently, Rameshan Nair had quoted the highest bid of Rs 35 per litre of hypo-fixer waste in a state-wide tender and won the bid. When he went to examine the solution at Sree Avittam Thirunal Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram using the Silver Estimator he found that the entire silver in the solution was stolen. He informed the authorities and even held a press meet to announce his discovery.

In the case of used X-ray films, the silver content can be washed off into a tank and later extracted using the same chemical methods cited above. Rameshan Nair says he would quote a higher price for orthopaedic X-rays than chest X-rays. In the case of chest X-rays in order to obtain a clear picture of the lungs and surrounding areas more silver bromide is washed off in the developing process. "I would quote for example Rs 1,40,000 per tonne for ortho X-rays which contain more silver whereas I will quote only Rs 75,000 per tonne for chest X-rays," Rameshan Nair said.

Rameshan Nair took much pain to establish his silver extraction unit. Seven years ago he had to bring 10 tonnes of Low Ash Mettalurgical Coke from Sesa Goa for Rs 500,000 and a transportation charge of Rs 24,000. He says only Sesa Goa's coke has the requisite heat retaining properties. He has obtained a subsidy of Rs 1.60 lakh from Khadi and Villages Industries Board on a bank loan of Rs 500,000.

Besides making mattresses, mattress covers and hospital furniture Rameshan Nair is also a major campaigner against the corruption in the government hospitals and unethical practices being followed in the medical profession. He says before the advent of digitalisation, the photography industry also provided sufficient material for the silver hunter in Rameshan Nair. "I am very strict about business ethics. My unit is registered and pays sales tax on every sale. My hands are clean,"  Rameshan Nair says.

For this school dropout and son of a fruit merchant, the silver hunt has given him a respectable standard of living. He has three children, owns two four-wheelers and travels more than 20 days a month to gain new business.

His wife is also helping him in the business. He is willing to teach the tricks of the trade to a few people for a consideration of Rs 25,000. He has already trained two students who are now in the Gulf.

Why only a few people?

Too much competition will spoil the market, says this veteran silver extractor.

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