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 derive our modern day “copper”.
The Egyptians used the ankh symbol to denote copper in their system of hieroglyphs. It also represented eternal life.
Archaeological finds suggest copper tubes were first used by Ancient Egyptians to carry water in around 2750 BC. An example in the Berlin State Museum – from a temple near the Pyramid of Sahure in Abusir – remains largely intact despite the temple’s poor condition, highlighting copper’s durability.
Pure gold is so soft that you can shape it with your hands, which is why most gold jewellery is actually a mixture of gold, silver and copper. In Europe, it was forbidden to alloy gold with metals other than silver and copper up until the 19th century. Even twenty-four carat gold contains copper!
New York’s Statue of Liberty is made of more than 80 tonnes of copper from Norway’s Visnes Copper Mines. Made by French artisans, it withstood the long journey from France to America and resisted the salty sea air. The Lady’s natural, green patina has protected her from corrosion since 1886.
The average car contains up to 22.5 kg of copper. Copper electrical and electronic components enable intelligent engine and gear management, and extensive sensor and infotainment systems. Increasingly complex, efficient electrical systems in modern cars require more power, and more copper.
One of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Israel was written on copper instead of the more usual, brittle parchment. The scroll does not contain religious texts, but hints at treasures as yet unfound.
From traditional jam pans to the cutting-edge casserole dishes used by Michelin-starred chefs, copper cookware offers superior heat conductivity, guaranteeing a consistent temperature and limiting thermal inertia to give the best results every time.
Copper’s excellent conductivity makes it highly useful in medicine. Copper coating on a surgeon’s scalpel conducts electricity to heat the blade, making it self-cauterising. This is key to controlling bleeding during operations and when 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 non-sparking copper alloy tools are also non-magnetic and corrosion resistant.
Every year lightning strikes many buildings throughout the world. Copper has long been used to protect them in the form of lightning conductors that channel the lightning safely to ground.
Copper’s exceptional corrosion resistance is harnessed in many inhospitable environments. Sweden, a leader in long-term nuclear waste handling, keeps used nuclear fuel in oxygen-free copper canisters with a wall thickness of five centimetres. These canisters have to remain effective for 100,000 years, but are expected to last five times longer.
In one of its most spectacular and futuristic applications, copper provides the matrix of 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, then etching away much of the copper to leave thin lines that carry current. A new method uses inkjet technology to deposit thin copper lines directly onto the circuit, eliminating waste and making circuits cheaper to produce.
The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was built in the third century BC using 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. These events are early examples of copper recycling!
Beginning in the early 16th century, painting on sheets of copper was common amongst European artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Brueghel, El Greco and Rembrandt. They found that copper provided a smooth, durable surface that held the paint well and gave a smooth, luminous finish.
High-speed trains contain 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 increase.
The biggest offshore wind farms in the North and Baltic seas contain up to 30 tonnes of copper per turbine in their ring generators. Every year, each tonne of copper used can save over 150 times the amount of carbon dioxide produced during its manufacture.
A firework’s colour depends on its ingredients, and copper contributes blues. By introducing chemicals and metals ground into tiny particles, different colours can be created for a fireworks display. When the firework explodes, the metal particles start oxidising, which creates the heat needed to excite the particles so they emit light and colour.
It has been estimated that at least 65% of all copper ever mined is still in use, or available for use, today, 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.
19th century sailing ships that transported products such as wool and tea between Europe and the Far East were given copper-plated hulls: a practice introduced in the 18th century by Britain’s Royal Navy to minimise marine growths that would have reduced a ship’s speed. 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 accurately measure longitude. These innovations wouldn’t have been possible without the extensive use of two copper alloys: brass and tin-bronze.
Copper was once used to make dinars and is used today in 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 purpose-built to achieve this.
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 dawn of civilisation, are widely-used today in modern applications. Two of the best-known alloys are bronze (copper and tin) and brass (copper and zinc).
With iron and zinc, copper makes up the trio of minerals essential to our well-being. Copper is vital to our health from foetal development right through to old age. We need copper for blood vessel formation, a healthy heart, and for stabilising the collagen, or connective tissue, which binds one part of the body to another. Copper is also needed for brain development and effective communication between nerve cells in the brain, as well as for healthy bones and teeth.
A balanced diet requires a recommended daily intake of about 1 mg of copper. 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 required copper intake. Also, there are some unexpected and delightful sources such as cocoa, providing one valid, scientific reason to eat chocolate!
Scientific studies have demonstrated copper’s inherent ability to kill dangerous bacteria, viruses and fungi. Surfaces made from copper and many copper alloys will eliminate these pathogens and thus provide a more hygienic environment in areas such as healthcare, food processing and 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.
Though microbes weren’t discovered until the 19th century, 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, and the Aztecs treated sore throats with it, while Persia and India applied copper to treat boils, eye infections and ulcers.