Copper - the red gold soft metal has been impressing humanity for centuries. As one of the world's most important precious metals, the journey of copper from ore to alloy is an essential part of our history and arguably even a cornerstone of our evolution. Copper is something we have grown to rely on - being used in everything from our earliest surgical tools to modern-day electrical wiring, plumbing, building construction, ornamental items, and even healing copper jewelry.
The story of copper can be traced all the way back to the copper age (also known as the Chalcolithic period). This was when some of our earliest ancestors began to craft with copper after emerging from the Stone Age. As they entered the bronze age, the copper would also be alloyed with tin, which would take its innovative use to the next level.
Found in the depths of the earth, copper is truly a gift of the elements. Famed for being an excellent conductor, for being one of the most malleable metals, for being corrosion resistant, and for being a truly valuable resource, we delve into the wild world of copper and trace its formation through time and geology to tell the tale of how copper came to be.
The Basics of Copper
What is Copper?
Copper is a chemical element and can be found on the periodic table under the name Cu. Copper is famed for its reddish brown and gold coloring hallmarks it, and is a softer type of metal. Shiny and bright, copper certainly has an alluring aesthetic, which is why it's used in copper jewelry, but that's not all - it is also known for its thermal and electrical conductivity, which makes it fundamental across many industries. The softness of copper also makes it malleable, meaning that it can be easily hammered into shape. It also has a high melting point and natural antimicrobial properties. Here are some quick flash facts about copper...
- Chemical classification: Native Copper
- Chemical composition: CU
- Atomic Number: 29
- Hardness: 2.5-3
- Crystal System: Isometric
- Rock Type: Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic
Historical Significance of Copper
Speaking of malleability, copper has also helped hammer society into a modern shape. The production of copper has played such an important role in different industries that we truly wouldn't be where we are today without it. You can trace copper back to the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Greeks - all of whom used copper to make some of our earliest tools, weapons, and, of course, jewelry and ornamental items, too. This was also a time period known as the Copper Age. Afterward, the Bronze Age blended copper with tin to produce bronze, which helped humans make another major leap in their technological success. Today, copper shows up all the time in our daily lives, even when we can't see it. It is in our electronics, the construction of our homes, the industrial machinery that runs our modern world, our transport, our kitchens, our cooking utensils, pans, and even our wrists, necks, and ears. Copper is a miracle.
Geological Formation of Copper
The earth is the biggest producer of copper, and this precious metal is a natural component of the geological tapestry that happens deep in the core. A blend of certain elements, conditions, and time come together to create copper. Copper is found across the world, but the biggest producers in our modern world tend to be in South America most notably in Chile and Peru. China is also a big producer of copper extraction, and North America is another spot rich in copper deposits and copper production. Let's take a closer look at how copper comes to be.
Copper Deposits and Ore Formation
Copper deposits are often born from volcanic activity. Deep in the core of the earth and close to the mantle, magma swirls and erupts, causing certain minerals to rise. When the molten rock cools, it solidifies, and ore-forming environments are born. Sulfur-rich solutions also play their part in the makeup of copper as these solutions mixed with the magma can cause the creation of copper sulfide compounds, which turn into copper sulfide ores over time. Hydrothermal activity also contributes to copper ore formation as water pushes through rock, dissolving the copper minerals and becoming mineral-rich. The earth naturally heats this water; it deposits copper in cavities as it rises.
Types of Copper Ores
Copper minerals are found combined with other elements and rocks like Malachite, Chalcopyrite, and Bornite.
Chalcopyrite is one of the primary sources of copper ores. It has a golden yellow coloring and is rich in copper and iron sulfides.
Malachite is known for being a secondary source of copper minerals. This green-colored gem is born when minerals containing copper and carbon dioxide-rich water come together.
Bornite is bright in beautiful shades, is also known to be threaded with copper minerals, and gets its coloring from potentially undergoing oxidation.
Mining and Extraction of Copper
Copper may be born in the depths of the earth, but it then needs to be mined and extracted from the crust so that it can be refined from copper ore to pure copper. Let's look at the process of gathering these copper ore minerals and making them into something usable.
Copper Mining Techniques
The extraction of copper ore used to rely on digging and surface scraping to source the rocks that were rich in copper. These early mining techniques would rely on visual assessment and basic tools to separate the copper from the rock. Of course, this method was labor-intensive and slow, but it did pave the way for more modern techniques of mining to come.
Today, the largest copper mines and even smaller ones rely on open-pit mining and underground mining. In open-pit mining, layers of topsoil and rock are removed to expose copper mineral deposits. Underground mining uses sinking shafts and tunnels to reach the ore. Both techniques use heavy machinery, sophisticated methods, and even explosives to extract copper.
Open-pit mining is considered to be a safer practice as it is conducted closer to the surface and can yield high amounts of copper. It's also easier to take a flexible approach when mining on the surface and tends to be less expensive and less risky than going down deep. However, as this relies on gathering copper from closer to the surface, the copper product may be of a lesser grade than the copper found deeper in the earth.
Undergrounding mining is arguably less disruptive to the environment as natural habitats and soils aren't as heavily disrupted in comparison to open pit mining. Underground mining will also yield a higher-quality percent copper concentrate. However, there is an expense with going underground, and the setup and safety precautions can be much more complex than the open-pit extraction of copper ore.
From Ore to Pure Copper
Taking the copper ore minerals to pure copper takes some processing. First, the area will be assessed and geologically surveyed to check if it has any availability of copper ore minerals. It is then drilled to check the quality and quantity; if it passes the test, it will be prepped for mining.
Large drills and explosives are often used in large sites to break down the rocks so the ore can be extracted. This one will usually have a mixture of copper minerals but also impurities, so it will need to be transported to a processing plant to remove the waste materials.
At the processing plant, the ore will be crushed into smaller particles, making it easier to separate the copper minerals from the rock. The crushed ore is then mixed with water and other chemicals until it creates a slurry. Air bubbles are added so that the copper can attach to the oxygen-enriched air bubbles, which then float to the surface.
The copper concentrate is then smelted. This is done by heating the copper concentrate to a high temperature (normally after adding fluxes to remove any further impurities. The result of smelting is that you get molten copper, which is called blister copper.
The blister copper is then refined even further through various processes, including electrolysis, which creates high-quality copper cathodes. The copper is then turned into a usable form by being rolled into sheets or cast into certain shapes depending on what it will be used for. These casts and sheets will be trimmed and the copper polished so that it is ready to be further processed into what they will ultimately be used for, whether that be wires, tubes, rods, or something else.
Copper's Role in Modern Industry
Copper shows up in our daily lives and is revered as being one of the best materials in modern industry. Copper comes with a ton of benefits - it is a great conductor of electricity and a conductor of heat, it's recyclable, easy to shape thanks to its malleability, highly versatile, naturally antimicrobial, and strong. Copper is used across many different sectors, and it truly contributes to the function of our daily lives.
Electrical and Construction Uses
Copper is often used in electrical systems as it has extraordinary power when it comes to conducting energy. As it is so savvy at conducting electric currents in a reliable manner, it is used in everything from major power lines to the smallest electrical items. Its resistance to heat and the fact that it can be shaped and easily made into thin wires only adds to its electrical appeal.
Copper is also used in plumbing systems as it is known for its resistance to corrosion, good at conducting heat, durable, and malleable. All of these things add up to making it a solid choice when it comes to shaping pipes and fittings that will spend a lot of time in a moist area.
Copper is a favored building element and is often used in all kinds of construction as an industrial material. Again, the corrosion resistance, high conductivity, strength, durability, and other physical properties make it a popular choice in roofing, cladding, architectural decoration, and so forth, as it is able to handle all kinds of environmental conditions.
Copper in Everyday Life
Look around your home, and you are sure to have copper stashed in many household items. Copper is commonly used in cookware, utensils, pots and pans, and even kitchen counters and appliances. This is also copper, which does have an alluring aesthetic, but also because its an excellent conductor of heat and electricity too. It is also used in cookware because it has naturally antimicrobial properties.
Our smaller electronics at home and in our hands will also rely on copper. From laptops to smartphones and more, copper plays its part in all of these things. Copper wiring and other small components in electronics rely on copper conductivity but also its lightweight nature and its ability to deal effectively with high frequencies and efficient data transfer - especially in a world where the physical size of our technology gets smaller and smaller.
Driving any car or taking public transport and copper will also show up here too. Copper is increasingly showing up in the use of electric cars, but even in older-style cars, the lightweight and reliable nature of copper will be in many components.
Copper jewelry is also no new fad and has been around since the dawn of time. Now, copper bracelets are still revered in our modern world for helping ease the aches and pains of arthritis and other joint conditions. Our body relies on copper as it is a natural trace element, and the belief is that copper bracelets contribute to our copper intake and benefit the body, mind, and soul with its vast healing properties.
Sustainability and Recycling of Copper
As we move into a time period where we need to be more aware of how we impact our environmental conditions, copper can be a sustainable solution. One of the most eco-friendly things about copper is the fact that it is infinitely recyclable. Copper rarely loses its strength even in extreme conditions, and while some other industrial metals and materials may degrade during the recycling process, copper is not one of them.
While extracting copper ore from the earth can be intensive, the recycling process is the opposite and actually doesn't require any heavy energy. This means that recycling and reusing copper can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce carbon footprints, and have less of a negative impact on our natural environments. Choosing to use recycled copper means that we can rely on the copper supply we have, and fewer new mines need to be opened.
When we recycle copper rather than mine for new copper, we can reduce energy output by a staggering 85 percent. It's also worth noting that as we are now in an age where we burn through technology fast, and devices become obsolete, copper can be saved from these devices and used over and over again, which means that copper isn't contributing to landfill waste.
Recycled copper will first be collected and then sorted to ensure that just the pure copper alloys are kept. The alloys then undergo a deep copper cleaning process to remove any impurities before being melted back down to their original form. Once back to its molten form, further impurities will also be removed, and then the copper will be ready to be reshaped into its new life form - whether that's rods, tubes, wires, or sheets.
There's no doubt that copper is one of our most important materials. For centuries, this precious metal hasn't let us down, and even in modern times, it continues to provide a pillar for industry and technology as one of the best-recycled metals you could hope for. With its durability, resistance to atmospheric corrosion, soft malleability, and strong soldering properties, not to mention its exceptional conductive properties, copper is an integral part of our world.
How long has copper been used by humans?
Copper has been used by humans for centuries and continues to be one of the most important materials we rely on in our day-to-day lives. Copper coins can be traced back to 8000 BC, and from 5000 BC onwards, copper tools started to be used as we moved out of the Stone Age. Now, it is used for everything from electricity to plumbing and building construction and as an architectural material, copper touch surfaces, copper vessels, copper jewelry, and everyday items.
What are the main types of copper ores?
The main types of copper ores are Malachite, Chalcopyrite, and Bornite. Chalcopyrite is one of the most commonly smelted.
Can copper be recycled without losing its properties?
Yes, one of the most impressive things about copper is the fact that it is infinitely recyclable. Copper can be reused time and time again without losing its strength, conductivity, malleability, or anything that makes it such a valued modern material. Because of its impressive recycling capability, it is also one of the most sustainable metals out there.