As the third most-consumed metal on earth, behind iron and aluminum, copper is all around us. Found naturally in the earth’s crust, copper was among the first metals used by early humans, dating back to the 8th century, BC.
Three thousand years later homo sapiens figured out how to smelt copper from its ore, and to alloy it with tin to create bronze. Bronze was useful for tools and weapons, making it one of the most important inventions in the history of civilization. Copper was later used in roofing, and still is, for its strength and oxidized green look, as well as in works of art. Copper, or Cu, is also essential for all living organisms.
Just under half of copper demand is for the electronics industry. The rest is used to feed a range of industrial machinery, vehicles and consumer products. For most, no other raw material can be substituted for copper.
Copper is useful for electrical applications because it is an excellent conductor of electricity, and cheaper than gold or silver which are also conductors. That, combined with its corrosion resistance, ductility, malleability, and ability to work in a range of electrical networks, makes it ideal for wiring. Among the electrical devices that use copper are computers, televisions, circuit boards, semiconductors, microwaves and fire prevention sprinkler systems.
In telecommunications, copper is used in wiring for local area networks (LAN), modems and routers. While aluminum is preferred for overhead power transmission lines, copper wires are used in medium-voltage distribution and low-voltage connections.
The construction industry would not exist without copper; it is essential for wiring in residential and commercial construction. The red metal is also used for potable water and heating systems due to its ability to resist the growth of water-borne organisms, as well as its resistance to heat corrosion.
The transportation industry is reliant on copper for core components of airplanes, trains, cars, trucks and boats. A commercial airliner has up to 190 kilometers of copper wiring, while high-speed trains use up to 10 tonnes of copper per kilometer of track.
Automobiles have used copper and brass radiators and oil coolers since the 1970s. Most new vehicles need copper for on-board navigation, anti-lock braking systems, heated seats, defrosting wires embedded in windows, hydraulic lines, and wiring for window and mirror controls.
Copper is destined to play an essential role in the new “green” economy, especially the shift, one we believe is inevitable, from “ICE” vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel fuel, to electric vehicles, hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell autos. This shift is being driven by the need to reduce global air emissions, which scientists universally agree are contributing to global warming.
Copper is utilized in an electric vehicle’s electric motor and wiring. An EV has four times as much copper as a fossil-fueled model.