The Romans gave copper its name. They called it “aes cyprium” (ore from Cyprus) because, in ancient times, most of 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 around 2750 BC. There is an example in the Berlin State Museum taken from a 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 actually contains a mixture of gold, silver and copper. In Europe, it was actually 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 mined in Norway and fabricated by French artisans. Copper was an obvious choice: it withstood the long journey to America from France and resisted the salty sea air and spray to which it was exposed. The Lady’s natural, green patina has protected her from corrosion since 1886.
An average, mid-sized car contains up to 22.5 kg of copper. Without copper electrical components, we wouldn’t have intelligent engine and gear management, nor extensive sensor and entertainment systems. Increasingly complex, efficient electrical systems in modern cars require more and more electrical power, and thus 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 yet to be found.
From classic jam pans to the casseroles of the Michelin-starred chefs at the greatest restaurants, copper cookware is unrivalled. Why? Because copper is the best of any material used in cookware 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-cauterising. 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 are therefore used in hazardous and potentially explosive areas where sparks could ignite volatile materials, chemicals or gases. These tools are also nonmagnetic and corrosion resistant.
Every year, lightning strikes buildings throughout the world. Copper has long been used to protect them via lightning conductors. All these need to work 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 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 superconductors used inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—the largest of its kind—in Switzerland.
Traditionally, printed circuit boards for electronic products were made by laminating a sheet of copper onto a flexible film, then etching away much of the copper, leaving only thin lines that carry current. A new method uses inkjet technology to deposit 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 (an alloy of copper and tin) reclaimed from confiscated war implements. The Colossus was destroyed by an earthquake around 50 years later, and the bronze was collected and sold as scrap: just one example of early copper recycling!
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 copper provides a smooth, durable surface that holds paint well and allows for marvellous 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 in the North and Baltic seas contain up to 30 tonnes of copper per turbine. The production of each tonne of copper creates less than a tonne of CO2, and over the course of a year, one tonne of copper in a wind turbine can save over 150 times that amount of CO2.
Fireworks give off different colours according to their ingredients, and copper is responsible for the blue colours. By introducing chemicals and different metals ground into tiny particles, all sorts of colours can be created. When a firework explodes, the metal particles start oxidising, which creates the heat needed to excite the metal particles so they emit coloured light.
It has been estimated that at least 65% of all copper ever mined is still in use, or available for use, having been recycled over and over. Copper’s ability to be recycled—repeatedly, without any loss in performance—is an important sustainable benefit. Today, around 50% of Europe’s copper demand is met by recycled material.
Sailing ships that transported products such as tea and wool between Europe and the Far East in the 19th century were fitted with copper-plated hulls. The practice was introduced in the 18th century by Britain’s Royal Navy to minimise marine growths that would have reduced the speed of the ships. Today, copper alloys are stilled used to protect boat hulls, and also fish farms, offshore platforms, seawater pipework and desalination units.
In the 18th century, clockmaker John Harrison created sea clocks and watches that became famous for helping to accurately measure longitude. These innovations would not have been possible without the extensive use of two copper alloys: brass and tin-bronze.
Copper has a long history of use in coinage, continued today in euro coins. These 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—about the size of a rubbish bin and weighing 200 kg—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 civilisation—are widely used in modern applications. Two of the best-known alloys are bronze (a mixture of copper and tin), and brass (copper and 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 foetal development right through to old age. We need copper for blood vessel formation, a healthy heart, and for stabilising the collagen (connective tissue) that binds one part of the body to another. Copper is also needed for brain development, and for 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 and 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 daily intake. Also, there are some unexpected and delightful sources—such as cocoa and chocolate—providing a valid scientific reason to eat chocolate!
Scientific studies have demonstrated copper’s efficacy against some of the most toxic species of bacteria, viruses and fungi, so copper plays an active role in many different applications where pathogens can spread via frequently-touched surfaces, such as healthcare, food processing, air conditioning and public transport.
In drinking water systems, studies have confirmed copper tubes reduce biofilm (a layer of micro-organisms that forms on the inside of water pipes), and decrease the 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 hygiene and the treatment of disease. Egyptians used it 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 in treating disease, and the Aztecs used it to treat sore throats. In Persia and India, copper was applied for boils, eye infections and venereal ulcers.