The Romans gave copper its name. They called it “aes cyprium” (ore from Cyprus) because in ancient times most of the copper came from Cyprus. The word was later modified to “cuprum” from which we have our modern day “copper”.
The Egyptians used the ankh symbol to denote copper in their system of hieroglyphs. It also represented eternal life.
According to archaeologists copper tubes for conveying water were first used in Ancient Egypt about the year 2750 BC. There is an example in the Berlin State Museum taken from the temple near the pyramid of Sahure in Abusir. The fact that the copper piping is still present and fairly intact, in spite of the poor condition of the temple, speaks to the durability of copper as a piping material.
Pure gold is so soft that you can shape it with your hands, which is why most gold jewellery alloys actually contain a mixture of gold, silver and copper. In Europe, it was even forbidden to alloy gold with metals other than silver and copper up until the 19th century. Even twenty-four carat gold contains some copper!
New York’s Statue of Liberty is made of more than 80 tonnes of copper that came from the Visnes copper mines on Karmoy Island near Stavanger, Norway, and was fabricated by French artisans. Copper was an obvious choice: it withstood the long journey to America from France and resisted the salty sea it was exposed to. The Lady’s natural, green patina has protected her from corrosion since 1886.
An average mid-size car contains up to 22.5 kg of copper. Without copper electrical and electronic components, we wouldn’t have intelligent engine and gear management or extensive sensor and infotainment systems. Increasingly complex, efficient electrical systems in modern cars require more and more electrical power – and more copper.
One of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found in Israel was written on copper instead of the more brittle parchment. The scroll does not contain religious texts but hints at treasures which have yet to be found.
From our grandmothers’ jam pans to the casseroles of the Michelin-starred chefs of the greatest restaurants, copper cookware is unrivalled. Why? Because copper is the best of any material used in cooking at conducting heat, guaranteeing a consistent, constant temperature and limiting thermal inertia.
Copper’s excellent conductivity makes it extremely useful in medicine. Copper coating on a surgeon’s scalpel conducts electricity to heat the blade making it self-cauterizing. This is especially important for controlling bleeding during operations and for removing damaged tissue.
Tools made from copper and copper alloys do not produce sparks and therefore are used in hazardous and potentially explosive areas where sparks could ignite volatile materials, chemicals or gases. These non-sparking copper alloy tools are also nonmagnetic and corrosion resistant.
Every year lightning strikes many buildings throughout the world. Copper has long been used to protect buildings through lightning conductors. All that is needed is copper earthing.
Copper’s exceptional resistance to corrosion is invaluable in many inhospitable environments. That’s the reason why Sweden, leading the way on long-term nuclear waste handling, decided to keep used nuclear fuel out of harm’s way in new oxygen-free copper canisters with a wall thickness of five centimetres. These canisters are required to remain effective for a hundred thousand years but are expected to last five times longer.
In one of its most spectacular and futuristic applications, copper provides the matrix in the superconductors used in the CERN Large Hadron Collider, the largest in the world, in Switzerland.
Most printed circuit boards for electronic products are made by laminating a sheet of copper onto a flexible film and then etching away much of the copper to leave thin lines of solid copper that carry current. A new method uses inkjet technology to deposit only thin copper lines onto the circuit, eliminating waste and making circuits less expensive to produce.
The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was built in the third century BC from bronze reclaimed from confiscated war implements. The Colossus was destroyed by an earthquake around 50 years later, and the bronze was gathered up and sold as scrap — another early example of recycling copper metals!
Beginning in the early 16th century, European artists often painted on sheets of copper. Those artists include some of the most famous painters of all time: Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Brueghel, El Greco and Rembrandt. They found that copper provided a smooth, durable surface that held the paint very well and allowed for marvelous effects.
Each high-speed train uses about 20 tonnes of copper-containing components, mainly in the voltage transformers and drive motors. The pantographs of high-speed trains place huge forces on the overhead wiring systems that supply current. Special copper alloys have been developed to maintain the required contact as train speeds continue to increase.
The biggest offshore wind farms off the North and Baltic seas contain up to 30 tons of copper per turbine in their ring generators. The production of each ton of copper produces less than a ton of CO2. Over the course of a year, a ton of copper in a wind turbine can save over 150 times the amount of CO2 produced during its manufacture.
Fireworks give off different colours according to their ingredients and copper takes responsibility for all of the blue colours. By introducing chemicals and different metals ground into tiny particles, all kind of colours can be created for a fireworks display. When the firework explodes, the metal particles start oxidizing, which creates the heat needed to excite the metal particles so they can emit light/colour.
It has been estimated that at least 80% of all copper ever mined is still in use or available for use – having been recycled time and again and is still in use in today’s modern applications. Copper’s ability to be recycled, again and again, without any loss in performance, is an important sustainable benefit. Today, around 40% of Europe’s demand for copper is met by recycled material.
Sailing ships that transported products such as wool and tea between Europe and the Far East in the 19th century were fitted with copper-plated hulls, a practice introduced in the 18th century by Britain’s Royal Navy to minimize marine growths that would have reduced the speed of the ships traveling across the oceans. Today, copper alloys are used to protect fish farms, offshore platforms, boat hulls, seawater pipework and desalination units.
In the 18th century, clockmaker John Harrison created sea clocks and watches that became famous for helping to measure longitude accurately. These innovations would not have been possible without the extensive use of two copper alloys, brass and tin-bronze.
Copper was once used to make dinars and today is used for euros. Euros contain various copper alloys such as Nordic gold, which was specially developed for the new currency. Over time, copper has overtaken gold and silver as the most commonly-used metal for coins.
A new magnetic field world record of 91.4 Tesla was set on 22 June 2011 at Dresden-Rossendorf Helmholtz Centre in Germany. A double coil of copper wire, weighing 200kg and the size of a rubbish bin, was specially built for the purpose.
To enhance its natural properties, pure copper is alloyed with other metals such as zinc, tin, nickel, aluminium, gold, silver and manganese. Copper alloys, which date back to the beginning of civilization, are very much used today in many modern-day applications. Two of the best-known alloys are bronze (a mixture of copper with tin) and brass (a mixture of copper with zinc).
Together with iron and zinc, copper makes up the trio of minerals essential to our well-being. Copper is vital to the health of the body from fetal development right through to old age. We need copper for blood vessel formation, a healthy heart, and for stabilizing the collagen, or connective tissue, which binds one part of the body to another. Copper is also needed for brain development and for the effective communication between nerve cells in the brain, as well as for healthy bones and teeth.
A balanced diet to avoid copper deficiency requires a recommended daily intake of about 1 mg. Some foods are especially rich in copper including most nuts, seeds, chickpeas, liver and oysters. Natural foods such as cereals, meat and fish generally contain sufficient copper to provide up to 50% of the required copper intake. Also, there are some unexpected and delightful sources such as cocoa and chocolate, providing one valid scientific reason to eat chocolate!
Scientific studies has demonstrated copper’s antimicrobial efficacy against some of the most toxic species of bacteria, fungi and viruses and so copper plays an active role in many different applications such as healthcare, food processing, air conditioning or public transport.
In drinking water systems studies have confirmed that copper tubes reduce biofilm (a layer of micro-organisms that forms on the inside of water pipes), and decrease formation and growth of bacteria such as Legionella.
Microbes weren’t discovered until the 19th Century but copper’s hygienic properties were well known through experience and tradition. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs used copper compounds for the treatment of disease and good hygiene. Egyptians used copper as a sterilisation agent for drinking water and wounds. Hippocrates treated open wounds and skin irritations with copper. The Romans catalogued numerous medicinal uses for copper for various diseases. The Aztecs treated sore throats with copper, while Persia and India applied copper to treat boils, eye infections and venereal ulcers.