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Journey of Metals - Copper: Totally Wired

23 September 2019

Copper: Totally wired

Mark Priestman, Director of Non-Ferrous at EMR

Did you know that if it wasn’t for copper, many of our electrical appliances simply wouldn’t work? As one of the most sought-after materials in the metal recycling industry, copper is used in a vast range of household objects – from electrical components right through to decorative design. With recycled copper being worth up to 90% of the cost of the original copper[1], it’s perhaps no surprise that it is highly coveted in the metal recycling trade.


Boasting a 10,000-year history and infinite recyclability, it’s perfectly possible that the copper in a smartphone, laptop or car could have originally been part of a Roman centurion’s helmet. Here we explore how this wonder material has been used across millennia, the properties that have led to its ubiquity, and why recycling is necessary to sustain supply into the future.


A lustrous history

Copper has been essential in the development of human civilisation. So much so that the use of a copper alloy characterised an entire historical period - the Bronze Age. While copper’s elemental symbol, Cu, comes from the Latin cuprum, shortened from Cyprium æs - or Cyprian metal - the earliest documented example of copper usage was a pendant found in the modern territory of northern Iraq, dated to 8700 BC.


Its workability and toughness soon led to copper replacing flint in tools and weapons such as arrowheads from 6000 BC, but the creation of copper alloys saw usage soar from the Bronze Age onwards. From plumbing in Egyptian pyramids to roofing on the Pantheon, applications of copper and copper alloys became more widespread across the world, in coinage, ornaments and weaponry.


At the beginning of the industrial revolution, copper components formed inventions in telecommunications, electronics and transport; copper boilers were used to drive the first steam-powered locomotives; the first transatlantic communication in Morse code was sent via subsea cables made of copper; and copper wiring ran through the first house in the world to have electric power, Cragside - also known as the ‘palace of a modern magician’.


But the innovations didn’t stop there, and still today copper continues to play a key role in advancing humankind. It is integral in the development of future technologies such as renewable energy, green buildings and the electric vehicle (EV). In fact, the development and uptake of EVs and related infrastructure over the next decade alone is expected to grow copper demand by between three and five million tonnes[2] due to the high levels of copper required in the manufacturing process.


There’s little question that copper is one of the most important elements in the development of modern society. But what makes it so special?


What are the benefits?

Throughout the ages, copper has been known for its malleability, durability and resistance to corrosion. These features enable it to be cast, pressed and worked into a range of different forms while retaining its strength, hence its use as piping in plumbing systems and coinage since antiquity right up to the modern day.


Another massive benefit of copper is the ease with which it alloys with other metals. There are over 400 copper alloys[3], each with differing properties for use in a variety of applications. Most people will have heard of bronze and brass; but, comparatively fewer will be aware of bell metal - a copper-tin alloy used in the casting of bells for its low, deep sound and resonance - or beryllium copper, used to create non-sparking tools.


What has primarily propelled copper’s use in modern applications is its high electrical and thermal conductivity paired with its ductility. Copper is the most effective non-precious metal conductor of electricity, representing the standard by which all other conductors are measured. As a result, two thirds of global copper usage makes up the cables, wiring and electrical equipment that power our homes and businesses.


These same properties have built copper’s role in telecommunications, both in the wiring and as part of device circuitry. From phone to fax and finally the internet, the conductivity of copper enables these devices to reliably transmit voice and data across the world.


Meeting demand through recycling

As a result of these properties, copper is one of the most used and recycled metals in the world. While we are seeing a growth in copper substitutes, such as optical fibre for communications applications and aluminium for power cable, usage of refined copper has tripled over the last 50 years[4] with no signs of slowing down.


In 2018, global copper production was 23.9 million metric tonnes, while usage was 24.3 million metric tonnes - leading to a deficit of almost 400,000 metric tonnes[5].


Recycling copper is essential to meeting global demand and sustaining long-term availability of this versatile, but finite, resource. It is far cheaper to recycle old copper than extract it through mining. Like many metals, copper can be infinitely recycled without loss of its properties or quality, and around 50% of copper used in the EU[6] is supplied through recycling. However, it’s clear that recycling must play a greater role in closing the production to consumption deficit as we journey to a future powered by renewables - which require up to twelve times more copper than conventional power systems.


Requiring up to 85% less energy[7] than primary production, copper recycling delivers significant cost and environmental benefits, saving 40 million tonnes of CO2[8] emissions and 100 million MWh of electricity per year[9]. Reusing and recycling copper from end-of-life products and factory off-cuts improves societal resource efficiency to close the metal supply loop and support our transition to a circular economy.


As our reliance on copper grows, advances in recycling technologies and growing commitment to resource sustainability ensure that copper’s 10,000-year history is far from over. So next time you pull a penny out of your pocket, ask yourself: where did the copper come from, what did it use to be and - importantly - what will it be next?


Mark Priestman, 
Director of Non-Ferrous at EMR










[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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