Copper is an element (Cu) with an atomic weight of 63.546. On the periodic table, copper sits between nickel and zinc – atomic number 29.
The name ‘copper’ comes from the Latin word ‘cyprium’, which was the Roman name for Cyprus – a significant exporter and producer of copper in the ancient world. The word ‘cyprium’ was eventually shortened to ‘cuprum’, which is how copper got its chemical symbol, Cu.
The wonder metal
Copper is one of the essential trace minerals for all organisms on Earth. Every plant, animal and micro-organism that has ever been studied needs copper to live; it is a universal truth on Earth. When we think of civilisation and all that term means, it could not have happened without the wonder-metal copper.
Copper is very soft and has been worked by humans for at least 10,000 years. If you alloy copper with tin, you produce bronze, the alloy that gave us an age of mankind. Copper alloyed with zinc, creates brass.
Copper in ancient times
Copper is the second most conductive metal behind silver. It also possesses a relatively low melting point which meant ancient civilisations could smelt copper and cast items from it without using too much heat or specialised equipment.
Objects fabricated from copper last an astonishing amount of time. Recently, a copper pendant was found in modern-day Iraq that scientists have carbon-dated to approximately 8,700 BC.
When exploring the Great Pyramid of Giza, the archaeological team came across a partial plumbing system that was over 5,000 years old. The pipes made from copper were still functional; they could still hold water.
Copper has found many uses on ships for hundreds of years. The vessels that made up Christopher Columbus’ fleet in the 15th century, had their hulls protected by copper sheets. These copper sheets gave the ships excellent protection against wood-boring worms, seaweed and marine creatures. Thus, shipowners, that used copper-bottomed hulls on their vessels, found it gave them a much longer lifecycle.
The phrase ‘copper-bottomed’, quickly entered into the English language to describe anything that was a sure-fire bet. Copper-bottom investment, for instance, was a phrase used to help market various, supposedly infallible, money-making ventures.
Copper has also been utilised to fabricate low-value coins for centuries. In the UK, an old penny was colloquially referred to as a ‘copper’, and the new two pence coin introduced by the Royal Mint in 1972 still contained 97% copper.
Current applications of copper
Today, we are mining and using more copper than at any other time in human history. The most important market is electrical wiring, which accounts for half of all production. Copper wiring can be found in most electrical equipment in use today such as cellphones, televisions and food processors.
It is also has an important role in the fast-growing renewable energy sector, being used in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels. As more renewable technologies come online, the demand for copper is expected to grow year on year with forecasts predicting that by 2100, demand for the metal will be 2-3 times higher than it is currently.
In 2018, we produced approximately 18 million metric tonnes of copper but as the metal is very straightforward to recycle, 80% of all the copper produced by humans is still available for use.
Copper and stainless steel
Today copper is still an ingredient in some formulas of stainless steel. When copper is added to stainless steel, it increases the product’s capability to withstand corrosion in maritime environments.