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Journey of Metals - Brass: Tapping into its full potential

23 September 2019

Brass: Tapping into its full potential

Andrew Brady, EMR UK Chief Executive Officer

Brass is one of the world’s most common copper alloys, best-known for its decorative uses in fireplaces and interior fittings. But did you know that brass has also been used to make coins, ammunition and netting? With the UK exporting over 12 million kilograms of scrap brass in 2017[1] alone, it’s clear that there’s more to this modest metal than meets the eye.

Generally speaking, whilst the key attributes of brass are its strength and workability, it’s true value lies with its versatile properties. In fact, brass doesn’t just refer to one metal. From Aich’s alloy to Muntz metal, there are over types of 50 brass in common use, each with unique features and benefits based on different ratios of zinc, copper and other elements.

So what are these different properties, how are they formed and why are they essential for a variety of applications across the world? Andrew Brady, EMR UK Chief Executive Officer, discusses.

Bringing the heat

As a corrosion-resistant, non-magnetic and conductive metal, brass is key to the production of industrial and domestic electrical equipment. It is used to create a number of vital electronic components where good conductivity (supported by low corrosion) is required, such as connectors, electrical outlets or pins.

With good electrical and thermal conductivity, brass is often found in cooling and heating equipment such as radiators in cars and air conditioning units. Here, brass is used to form either heat exchanger tubing or condenser tubing which helps to transfer or draw away heat - depending on how it’s used.

Putting health and safety first

When people think of brass, it’s unlikely that health and safety would be the first thing that springs to mind. But in reality, brass has helped keep us safe from danger and disease for centuries. One of brass’ important properties is its spark resistance, which means it doesn’t create sparks when struck. For those working in environments with regular exposure to flammable materials - where any spark could have life-changing consequences - tools made from brass help to keep workers safe.

Spark-resistance isn’t brass’ only health and safety benefit. Going beyond its decorative gold-like appearance, one of the reasons brass is so often seen in door handles and taps is down to its antimicrobial nature. Known as the oligodynamic effect, copper alloys such as brass are able to naturally kill and prevent the growth of bacteria.

Brass can eliminate up to 99% of microbes in as little as two hours, and recent research[2] has revealed that using items made from copper-based metals in intensive care hospital rooms can cut the rate of infections, such as MRSA, by more than half!

Made for marine

The properties of brass also make the metal resistant to biofouling, which is the accumulation of microorganisms, plants, algae, or even animals on wet surfaces. This makes brass especially useful for those working in aquaculture – such as fish farming - where biofouling is an expensive phenomenon that can lead to increased levels of disease in farmed fish. It can also increase the weight of netting, causing breakages and requiring nets to be replaced on a regular basis. As a result, aquaculture businesses are turning to copper-containing brass mesh netting to prevent microorganism growth, helping save money and ensure a clean, healthy environment for the fish, from farm to plate.

From admiralty brass to naval brass, you need only look at the names of certain alloys for clues on how else brass might be used. Brass has been the go-to metal for seafarers over centuries, and its use in ships’ valves, pumps and hydraulic castings is a result of the metal’s resistance to seawater and steam, while maintaining high strength and hardness.

Preserving the potential

More than just taps and trumpets, brass is a strong, formable and cost-effective alloy able to meet an extensive range of needs both now and into the future. With such a variety of uses, maintaining a sustainable supply is essential.

Creating brass from raw materials is an expensive and energy-intensive process that leaves a large carbon footprint, so the brass industry relies on recycling to close the supply loop. Luckily, brass is one of the most self-sustaining metals in the world. Where recycling brass previously came with challenges, as a result of lead content in certain brass alloys, advances in technology have enabled improved separation and recoverability of this valuable resource.

Today, almost 90%[3] of all brass alloys are recycled for reuse. Brass’ almost infinite recyclability not only improves the planet’s resource efficiency to save energy and cost, it most importantly secures plentiful supply into the future - ensuring future generations can continue to enjoy the benefits of this versatile alloy.

Andrew Brady
EMR UK Chief Executive Officer

 



[1] HMRC export figures 2017 based on commodity code 74040091 - Waste and scrap, of copper-zinc base alloys "brass" (excl. ingots or other similar unwrought shapes, of remelted waste and scrap of copper-zinc alloys, ashes and residues containing copper-zinc alloys and waste and scrap of primary cells, primary batteries and electric accumulators) https://www.uktradeinfo.com/Statistics/BuildYourOwnTables/Pages/Table.aspx

[2] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130409110014.htm

[3] Ashby, M. and Johnson, K. (2008). Materials and design. Amsterdam: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, p.223.

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