2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at copper and some of its popular uses.
A brief history
Copper was one of the first metals ever extracted and used by humans. According to the US Geological Survey, copper ranks as the third most consumed industrial metal in the world, dating back to around 5000BC.
Around 5500BC, early ancestors discovered the malleable properties of copper, and discovered they could be fashioned into tools and weapons – a discovery that allowed humans to emerge out of the stone age and drift into the age of metals.
Volcanic rocks in Tenerife, Spain.
Approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s copper is found in volcanic rocks, while approximately one-quarter occurs in sedimentary rocks.
Th metal is malleable, meaning it can conduct heat and electricity, making copper an extremely useful industrial metal and is used to make electronics, cables and wiring.
What is it used for?
Since 4500BC humans have made and manufactured items from copper. Copper is used mostly as a pure metal, but its strength and hardness can be adjusted by adding tin to create a copper alloy known as bronze.
In the 1700s, pennies were made from pure copper; in the 1800s they were made from bronze; and today, pennies consist of approximately 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.
Copper is utilised for a variety of industrial purposes. In addition to copper’s good thermal and electric conductivity, copper now plays an important role in renewable energy systems.
As copper is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, power systems use copper to generate and transmit energy with high efficiency and minimal environmental impacts.
E. Coli cultures on a Petri dish.
Copper plays an important role as an anti-bacterial material. Copper alloy surfaces have properties which are set out to destroy a wide range of microorganisms.
Recent studies have shown that copper alloy surfaces kill over 99.9% of E.coli microbes within two hours. In the interest of public health, especially in healthcare environments, studies led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have listed 274 different copper alloys as certified antimicrobial materials, making copper the first solid surfaced material to have been registered by the EPA.
Copper has always maintained an important role in modern society with a vast list of extensive uses. With further development of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles, we will likely see an ongoing increase in demand for copper.