Copper (Cu) – part of a series on metals commonly alloyed with stainless steel to form varying grades of material.

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.

A piece of the metallic element, copper. It has a distinctive reddish, orange colour and is one of the few metals to occur in nature in a directly usable form.

A piece of the metallic element, copper. It has a distinctive reddish, orange colour and is one of the few metals to occur in nature in a directly usable form.

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-bottomed vessels

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.

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. The statue is made of copper which, when exposed to air, reacts with oxygen to produce a green layer of copper oxide known as a patina.

The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. The statue is made of copper which, when exposed to air, reacts with oxygen to produce a green layer of copper oxide known as a patina.

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.

A pile of copper coins. Its wide availability and relatively low cost has meant copper has been used as a material for making low value coins for hundreds of years.

A pile of copper coins. Its wide availability and relatively low cost has meant copper has been used as a material for making low value coins for hundreds of years.

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.

An electric car plugged into a charger. Electric vehicles use 3.6 times more copper than conventional vehicles as the metal is a vital component of electric motors and batteries.

An electric car plugged into a charger. Electric vehicles use 3.6 times more copper than conventional vehicles as the metal is a vital component of electric motors and batteries.

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.

By Daniel Groves
Richard Storer-Adam is MD of Double Stone Steel Ltd which fabricates PVD coloured stainless steel. Richard’s background is in design and project management, he lives in Spain and travels extensively writing about writes about architecture and sculpture in Richard is passionately interested in sculpture.