Copper may not be as popular as gold and silver but it’s certainly far superior to them and to most other metals in terms of applications. For millennia, this metal has been utilized to support a vast range of man’s daily activities from hunting and cooking to manufacturing and transportation. There are only a handful of industries that don’t make use of copper in their processes. Here are some other interesting facts about copper that can give you a good sense of how important this metal is.
Where did it come from?
Copper is a naturally-occurring metal. This means it can be mined from the earth as a pure metal. In fact, apart from being naturally occurring, copper is also unreactive to the atmosphere, which allows it to change very slowly if not at all when in contact with other materials, particularly the atmosphere. So when you dig deep enough into a copper mine, there’s a significant chance you’ll come across huge nuggets of copper.
Copper reserves are found all over the world. The largest one is in Chile, which produces around 200 metric tons of copper ore every year. The United States is only the seventh largest producer but 48 metric tons of copper ore a year shouldn’t be underestimated especially when you quantify the electronics and automotive parts it can be manufactured into. Even after so many thousands of years of non-stop mining, copper supply is still far from depletion.
Then again, the question remains, where did all of the Earth’s copper come from? The answer we’re looking for may not be found on Earth but from a distant globular star cluster in the outskirts of the Milky Way’s disk, called Omega Centauri. Many astronomers believe that the presence of copper in our planet’s composition may have been the result of the explosion of supergiant stars.
The extreme heat created by this explosion combined with the space’s extreme cold and fueled by the incalculable energy from a supernovae may have turned into a colossal chemical soup in space, which led to the formation of different metals, including copper. All those new elements were then catapulted into space at great speed until they get caught in different solar systems. Some of the copper from that rogue dust cloud had reached Earth during the early stages of its geologic formation.
Extracting Copper from Ore
Although copper can be found in chunks from the earth, it isn’t usually mined this way. After all, copper nuggets are extremely rare and still require some processing to remove impurities and extract copper. Instead, copper is usually extracted from an ore, a rock that has enough metal in it to make it worth processing. This isn’t like the rock you can pick up from the Earth’s surface, which most likely consist of hardened dust.
Considering how different minerals can gather together, there’s plainly countless different types of ore that can be processed to extract copper. However, the types of ore with the most abundant copper content are chalcopyrite, bornite, and malachite. These copper-rich ores are common in the majority of mining sites across the globe. In the U.S., large deposits of them are found in Utah, Arizona, Michigan, New Mexico and Montana.
Copper can be extracted from the ore in a number of ways, each of which is suitable for one particular type of copper ore. The two most common types of copper ore are sulfide-type and oxide-type. Either type must undergo a series of chemical processes to successfully extract their copper content. All methods, however, often start from crushing and powdering ore in a rod mill. This makes segregating copper from other metals and impurities so much easier.
Copper from sulfide-type ores is extracted through a process called froth floatation. Here the crushed ore is mixed with certain reagents that selectively combine with copper to make it hydrophobic. When the mixture is bathed in water, the copper floats along with the reagents, leaving the impurities in the water or settled at the bottom of the container. The extracted copper is then processed to remove the frothing agent.
Copper from oxide-type ore, on the other hand, are subjected to a form of leaching. In this method, dilute sulfuric acid is poured on the surface of the powdered copper ore and allowed to trickle to the bottom. This produces a weak copper sulfate solution, which is commonly known as pregnant liquor. This solution undergoes two more processes—solvent extraction and electro winning—to completely separate copper.
During solvent extraction, an organic solution is mixed with the pregnant liquor to extract the acid solution, leaving only a copper-rich aqueous solution. This solution is applied with an electrical charge to allow copper ions to migrate to copper started cathodes where the final purification takes place. At this final stage, copper is left in the cathodes while other metals, such as gold, platinum, and selenium collect at the bottom.
Interesting Characteristics of Copper
Copper was discovered around 10,000 years ago. During that time, the only other metals humans knew of were gold and silver, and compared to them, copper did not look as attractive. Its dull, reddish brown hue made it a poor choice of material for jewelry and structural ornaments, which were already booming industries back then. So what made copper became so extensively used if people didn’t find it physically appealing?
As it turns out, copper is rich in many different useful properties that cannot be found in other metals. For instance, it is extremely malleable and ductile. Meaning, it can easily be worked to form sheets, tubes, and plates. Unlike gold and silver, copper is also very easy to alloy with other metals. In fact, alloying was discovered and later became an essential branch of science because of copper, when it was accidentally cast with tin-rich ore. The resulting metal—bronze—became the most widely used metal in history so much so that it was named after an entire era. Bronze production had inadvertently contributed to the broadening of wars as it cultivated the growing industry of weapon manufacturing.
Copper is also electrically conductive. Most metals are but copper is on an entirely different level. The only metal that can beat its electrical conductivity is silver. Even so, the electrical wires and cables you see in your home and above you in the streets have copper cores. That’s because copper has a higher heat capacity than silver. Meaning, it won’t burn even when conveying high voltages of electricity.
When you go to a water treatment plant, you’ll notice that some of the containers and conveyors they use are made of copper. That’s because copper has a disinfectant property. It can kill bacteria within hours upon contact on its surface. This ability is all due to the oligodynamic effect, which occurs when copper ions target a specific type of protein in single-celled bacteria, killing them in the process.
All of these copper facts are essential when you are trying to learn more about copper before using it in your projects. It helps to know what you are dealing with, especially what their properties are, so you can maximize their potentials. When you finally decide to use copper, you should make certain to obtain them from a trusted copper sheet supplier in New York like Rotax Metals. Even if the copper in other suppliers is the same material, the manner by which it was extracted and processed (and therefore its quality) may differ.