Copper - Applications, Price Factors, History and Prodution Process

Copper is a chemical element with the symbol CU on the periodic table, and has atomic number 29. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish. It is used as a conductor of heat and electricity, a building material, and a constituent of various metal alloys.
Copper alloys are metal alloys that have copper as their principal component. They have high resistance against corrosion. The best-known traditional types are bronze, where tin is a significant addition, and brass, using zinc instead. Both these are imprecise terms, and today the term copper alloy tends to be substituted, especially by museums.


The metal and its alloys have been used for thousands of years. In the Roman era, copper was principally mined on Cyprus, hence the origin of the name of the metal as сyprium (metal of Cyprus), later shortened to сuprum. Its compounds are commonly encountered as copper(II) salts, which often impart blue or green colors to minerals such as turquoise and have been widely used historically as pigments. Architectural structures built with copper corrode to give green verdigris
Copper(II) ions are water-soluble, where they function at low concentration as bacteriostatic substances, fungicides, and wood preservatives. In sufficient amounts, they are poisonous to higher organisms; at lower concentrations it is an essential trace nutrient to all higher plant and animal life. The main areas where copper is found in animals are tissues, liver, muscle and bone.

The Making of Copper

Most copper is mined or extracted as copper sulfides from large open pit mines in porphyry copper deposits that contain 0.4 to 1.0% copper. Examples include Chuquicamata in Chile, Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, United States and El Chino Mine in New Mexico, United States. According to the British Geological Survey, in 2005, Chile was the top mine producer of copper with at least one-third world share followed by the United States, Indonesia and Peru. The amount of copper in use is increasing and the quantity available is barely sufficient to allow all countries to reach developed world levels of usage.


Copper has been in use at least 10,000 years, but more than 95% of all copper ever mined and smelted has been extracted since 1900. As with many natural resources, the total amount of copper on Earth is vast (around 1014 tons just in the top kilometer of Earth’s crust, or about 5 million years worth at the current rate of extraction). However, only a tiny fraction of these reserves is economically viable, given present-day prices and technologies. Various estimates of existing copper reserves available for mining vary from 25 years to 60 years, depending on core assumptions such as the growth rate. Recycling is a major source of copper in the modern world. Because of these and other factors, the future of copper production and supply is the subject of much debate, including the concept of Peak copper, analogue to Peak Oil.


The major applications of copper are in electrical wires (60%), roofing and plumbing (20%) and industrial machinery (15%). Copper is mostly used as a metal, but when a higher hardness is required it is combined with other elements to make an alloy (5% of total use) such as brass and bronze. A small part of copper supply is used in production of compounds for nutritional supplements and fungicides in agriculture. Machining of copper is possible, although it is usually necessary to use an alloy for intricate parts to get good machinability characteristics.


The electrical properties of copper are exploited in copper wires and devices such as electromagnets. Integrated circuits and printed circuit boards increasingly feature copper in place of aluminium because of its superior electrical conductivity; heat sinks and heat exchangers use copper as a result of its superior heat dissipation capacity to aluminium. Vacuum tubes, cathode ray tubes, and the magnetrons in microwave ovens use copper, as do wave guides for microwave radiation

Architecture and Industry

Because of the waterproof nature of copper, it has been used as the roofing material of many buildings since ancient times. The green color on these buildings is due to a long-term chemical reaction: copper is first oxidized to copper(II) oxide, then to cuprous and cupric sulfide and finally to copper(II) carbonate, also called verdigris, which is highly corrosion-resistant. The copper used in this application is phosphorus deoxidized copper (Cu-DHP). Lightning rods use copper as a means to divert electric current throughout the ground instead of destroying the main structure. Copper has excellent brazing and soldering properties and can be welded; the best results are obtained with gas metal arc welding.

Copper in Alloys

Numerous copper alloys exist, many with important uses. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and bronze usually refers to copper-tin alloys, but can refer to any alloy of copper such as aluminium bronze. Copper is one of the most important constituents of carat silver and gold alloys and carat solders used in the jewelry industry, modifying the color, hardness and melting point of the resulting alloys.
The alloy of copper and nickel, called cupronickel, is used in low-denomination statuary coins, often for the outer cladding. The US 5-cent coin called nickel consists of 75% copper and 25% nickel and has a homogeneous composition. The 90% copper/10% nickel alloy is remarkable by its resistance to corrosion and is used in various parts being exposed to seawater. Alloys of copper with aluminium (about 7%) have a pleasant golden color and are used in decorations. Copper alloys with tin are part of lead-free solders.

Antimicrobial Applications

Copper-alloy touch surfaces have natural intrinsic properties to destroy a wide range of microorganisms (e.g., E. coli O157:H7, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Staphylococcus, Clostridium difficile, influenza A virus, adenovirus, and fungi). Some 355 copper alloys were proven to kill more than 99.9% of disease-causing bacteria within just two hours when cleaned regularly. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the registrations of these copper alloys as “antimicrobial materials with public health benefits,” which allows manufacturers to legally make claims as to the positive public health benefits of products made with registered antimicrobial copper alloys. In addition, the EPA has approved a long list of antimicrobial copper products made from these alloys, such as bedrails, handrails, over-bed tables, sinks, faucets, door knobs, toilet hardware, computer keyboards, health club equipment, shopping cart handles, etc. (for a comprehensive list of products, see: Antimicrobial copper-alloy touch surfaces#Approved products). Copper doorknobs are used by hospitals to reduce the transfer of disease, and Legionnaires’ disease is suppressed by copper tubing in plumbing systems. Antimicrobial copper alloy products are now being installed in healthcare facilities in the U.K., Ireland, Japan, Korea, France, Denmark, and Brazil and in the subway transit system in Santiago, Chile, where copper-zinc alloy handrails will be installed in some 30 stations between 2011–2014.

Other uses

Copper compounds in liquid form are used as a wood preservative, particularly in treating original portion of structures during restoration of damage due to dry rot. Together with zinc, copper wires may be placed over non-conductive roofing materials to discourage the growth of moss. Textile fibers use copper to create antimicrobial protective fabrics, as do ceramic glazes, stained glass and musical instruments. Electroplating commonly uses copper as a base for other metals such as nickel.
Copper is one of three metals, along with lead and silver, used in a museum materials testing procedure called the Oddy test. In this procedure, copper is used to detect chlorides, oxides, and sulfur compounds.
Copper is often alloyed with precious metals like silver and gold, to create, for example, Corinthian bronze, hepatizon, tumbaga and shakudo.


In contrary to most other metals, copper is being traded on both the London Metal Exchange (LME) and on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). The prices on the LME still function as a benchmark for OTC contracts and deviations of this price on the NYMEX will usually only be minimal.

Price Factors

Due to the rising economies of China and India, the demand for copper is growing rapidly. These booming economies require enormous quantities of copper in order to continue their development, which will drive up the prices.
The remaining copper deposits are limited and current calculations determine they will be depleted between fifty and sixty years. This poses significant issues with consumption of copper still rising steadily. Consuming countries will start to look for alternatives or increase their recycling activities in order to increase their internal supply.

Price History

The price of copper has historically been unstable, and it quintupled from the 60-year low of US$0.60/lb (US$1.32/kg) in June 1999 to US$3.75 per pound (US$8.27/kg) in May 2006. It dropped to US$2.40/lb (US$5.29/kg) in February 2007, then rebounded to US$3.50/lb (US$7.71/kg) in April 2007, In February 2009, weakening global demand and a steep fall in commodity prices since the previous year’s highs left copper prices at US$1.51/lb.

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