Welcome to the second article of my new Worldbuilding series. Today we discuss one of the most important metals: Copper. Copper is really the unsung hero when it comes to metals. While noted for its use when there were only a few known metals in the world, it soon fell out of favor over time, only for it to resurface and the is metal responsible for the modern age of electronics. However, it is not just electronics that make Copper so valuable, but how it reacts to water as well.
Of all metals, Copper has an interesting history and understanding that will definitely help you in understanding its place within your universe.
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Before we get started, you will note that I have switched from using letters after the article number to using numbers. In this case, 14.1 instead of 14a. This is due to the fact that some areas like metals and minerals will have more than 26 articles, and this will help me to avoid confusion in the future.
Copper has an atomic number of 29 of the periodic table with the symbol Cu. Cu is the abbreviation for the Latin name Cuprum. The name is derived from the Ancient Rome, where Copper was primarily mined in Cyprus, and was then known as aes cyprium (or metal of Cyprus).
It is one of most abundant metals in the world, where it is believed that over 8 trillion tons of it exists. However, only 750 billion have been mined in all of history, which is less than 10%. At current rate of extraction, it is estimated that it will take 5 million years to mine all the Copper in the world. It should be noted that not all deposits of copper ore is economically viable to extract. However, it is one of the few metals that is 100% recyclable, and at least 80% of copper ever mined is still used today.
Copper occurs as native copper or in minerals such as chalcocite, azurite, and malachite. Most copper is mined or extracted as copper sulfides from large open pit mines. Examples include Chuquicamata in Chile, Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, United States and El Chino Mine in New Mexico, United States. Copper has been used for nearly 10,000 years, however, 95% of all Copper mined has been since the 1900’s, with more than half extracted in the last 25 years.
Copper is one of the few metals that can be found in its metallic state. It is also one of four metals to have a natural colour other than grey or silver. Copper in its pure form is an orange-red colour, but when exposed to oxygen (or oxide), it is a reddish tarnish. Other metals with a natural colour is the yellow of Caesium and Gold, and the blue of Osmium. Interesting to note about Copper is changing colour when dealing with moisture. Like Iron that has rust, Copper has Patina, which is what causes Copper to go from red, to a dark brown, to green. Famous example would be the Statue of Liberty.
Copper was likely discovered along with other rocks. It was malleable that it could be dug out of rocks with a sharp rock or bone. Over time, smelting was discovered and people were then capable of molding it. Copper has a low melting point compared to Iron, so it was the first choice used for tools and decoration. It was a drastic improvement from stone tools. While Copper could be found on the ground, eventually civilizations ran out of that, and it then had to be mined from underground sources.
The greatness of Copper is not just what it can do by itself, but also what it does in combinations with other metals, also known as Alloys. Perhaps the most significant alloy discovered early on was that of Bronze. Believed to be discovered by accident, a mixture of Copper with a little bit of Tin creates an alloy that is superior than both metals. Bronze proved to be less malleable than Copper, meaning that it was greater at holding its shape. A blade of pure Copper would lose its sharpness after repeated use, but a Bronze blade would be able to maintain its sharpness for a longer time. Bronze was so prevalent in the world, that many cultures have their own version of the Bronze Age.
At present, there are over 400 copper alloys used today, but it is believed that we have only scratched the surface of what can be done with Copper and the advancements of the future may come from a special alloy of Copper. A discussion of Alloys will be their own section.
As great as Bronze was compared to copper, it was eventually replaced by Iron, and then Steel.
Copper (and all alloys containing Copper) also has a unique property that makes it ideal for water-based applications. Copper is resistant to water-based corrosion, unlike Iron that will rust rather quickly (Patina can take up to 10 years before a brown-black colour forms). For this reason, structures that were built with Copper tend to remain for a long time, such as the Historic Christ Church in Philadelphia, dating back to 1727, and still stands today. This is due to its corrosive resistance, low need for maintenance or cleaning, lightweight (even compared to tiling), and protection against lightning. It’s also useful for protecting against radio frequency.
Of all of those things, the one thing not mentioned that makes it good for architecture also makes it ideal for statues, door knobs, and sea vessels. Copper is anti-microbial. As we stated, Copper is resistant to water corrosion, so putting that on the hull of ships will keep the wood/metal underneath safe from damage. It does have the added benefit of killing microbes that are in water. It is believed that Copper somehow destroys the DNA of microbes, but at present, it is not entirely known what Copper does specifically. All that is known is that it prevents the growth of some micro-organisms and kills others.
Interestingly, even before the discovery of micro-organisms in the 19th century, this fact was partially known. Such as water transported in copper vessels were of better quality than non-copper. It was found to have little to no slime. In Ancient Egypt, there appeared to be a water delivery system through Copper pipes (rudimentary plumbing system). What makes this significant is by doing this, the Ancient Egyptians made their water more pure, healthier to drink. Likely didn’t know they did that.
Many pipes today use copper alloys, especially when dealing with salt water. It should be noted that Copper doesn’t make water completely pure, but it certainly helps.
Because of this, little to no barnacles form on the bottom of sea vessels. Prior to the use of Copper, wood was often used and microbes could form in the wood and eat away at it. This was obviously seen throughout the ages, even if it wasn’t understood why. Perhaps for this reason is why copper was still used when you had other metals such as steel.
At present, there are trials being done for Copper to be used in hospitals, specifically on door handles to prevent the growth of diseases. When someone grabs onto a door handle, they can transfer germs onto the surface which can live there for up to 30 days. Each person that touches it there after will be exposed to those germs and possibly transfer some more. Which is why when I’m in a bathroom, I always use a paper towel to open up a door after washing my hands. With a Copper handle (or copper based alloy handle), the microbes will be killed on contact. Copper has been tested to kill: E. Coli, MRSA, S. aureus, E. aerogenes, P. aeruginosa, and VRE.
It also kills Influenza A. Of the nearly 200 known strands of it, the common yearly flu is one strand that is killed by Copper.
A US study in 2013 found a 58% reduction of acquired infections in ICU compared to non-Copper ICU’s. Though an interesting effect was noted in 2010 known as the Antimicrobial Halo Effect of Copper Surfaces, in which non-copper materials that are touching Copper surface (up to 55 cm away from Copper surface) has up to 70% reduction of anti-microbial infection.
Interesting to note though, is that Copper is found within our bodies. While found in many other animals (which is part of the reason horseshoe crabs have blue blood), somewhere between 1.4mg to 2.1mg is in our body. Normal consumption of Copper in our foods for a healthy adult is .97mg/day to 3mg/day. Copper, for humans, is used for growth, development and maintenance of the bones. It is involved in the formation of red blood cells, the absorption and utilization of iron (which iron helps the the transport of oxygen to the rest of our bodies). It metabolizes cholesterol and glucose, and helps regulate nerve transmissions and blood clotting. It also promotes healing, stimulates the immune system, repair injured tissues and neutralize free-radicals.
As important as Copper is, negative effects can occur with too little or too much in our system. As far as deficiencies, people are more at risk for this than they realize and can cause severe blood disorders and increase of diseases. Excess, or Copper Toxicity causes upset stomach, nausea, tissue damage, and disease. It is believed that Copper levels are often overlooked, and to be healthy, you need to help maintain a good balance.
With discussing the anti-microbial effects as well as human physiology, there is of course the alternative medicine. I’m not a firm believer in a lot of these things, but this article is not about whether those things are true or not, rather just pointing out what is believed about Copper. When it comes to Copper for alternative medicine, the best known example is Copper bracelets, commonly believed to help with arthritis. It’s also believed that with a bracelet, that your skin can absorb the copper to help heal you, or it acts as a magnet.
Now before we discuss Copper throughout the ages and some final thoughts to writers in general, let’s go over the section that will likely be of particular interest to the Steampunk and Sci-fi writers out there: heat and electrical conductivity.
Copper is a highly conductive metal, which means it can be used for power generation/transmission/distribution, telecommunications, and circuitry. It is primarily found in wires and cables, whether in a building or on an airplane, with half of the extraction of Copper is used for wires and cables.
It also has a high tensile strength, meaning it can can be stretched a lot before it breaks. This is useful in wires made of copper, that it won’t stretch so easily or break. It is also has a high ductility, which relates to how it will deform under stress, which is important for making wires, which Coppers high ductility allows it to be made into a thin wire. High ductility also means it can be hammered into shapes without cracking.
As we know with metals, when you apply heat to it, it expands, and with cold, it contracts. This is undesirable in electronics, and when it comes to Copper, it is highly resistant to that change. More than that, Copper is highly conductive of heat, which allows for better heat dissipation in electrical systems.
It is believed the reason why Copper is good with both electrical and thermal conductivity is due to its softness.
Only Silver outmatches Copper’s high heat and electrical conductivity. It’s conductivity is 106% that of Copper. However, it’s high cost with low tensile strength and low ductility prevents its more widespread use than that of Copper. It is generally used for special applications, such as joint plating and sliding contact surfaces.
Aluminum has only 61% of Copper’s conductivity. Using Aluminum over Copper for electronics required more 56% more Aluminum than you would have Copper for the same carrying capability. However, Aluminum is still lighter than Copper, and still used long distance electrical power cables.
For the reasons mentioned above, Copper is responsible for the modern age, namely in the use of wires, but also in the use of integrated circuits found within computers. However, that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the use of Copper, computers used Aluminum. While Copper had been used for electrical applications since the 1800’s, in the case of the telegraph, batteries, and telephones, there were some difficulties in using it in computers.
The problem that Copper faced that Aluminum didn’t have as much problem with was something called, Galvanic Corrosion. Basically, Galvanic Corrosion is when you you have two metals touching with electrical current, that develops corrosion, making the metals unusable. Copper and Silicon (remember that Silicon is a metal) would corrode if in contact with each other, yet the need for computers to be smaller and faster was pushing Aluminum to its limits.
Aluminum has a high electrical resistance compared to Copper, which means you need to use more of it to send an electrical signal. Copper was what was needed, and IBM spent 15 years researching how to make Copper work with Silicon. The solution was a chemical agent between them, that acted as a buffer. The use of copper allowed computers to be smaller, faster, and use less power than Aluminum.
There is much more about Copper I haven’t covered here that will be address in other articles as it relates to them.
Prehistory (2.5 million years ago to 3600BC)
It is debated on which metal was found first, but is generally believed to be Copper or Gold. Copper was easily spotted on the ground as stones with shinny red or green. Generally, the use of Copper is considered to be a part of the Bronze age, but will regarded as the Chalcolithic age, or Copper Age. It is seen as the transition from Stone Age to Bronze Age.
The use of Copper is believed to have started around 5500 BC (though some reports go as far back as 8000BC). Widespread use is believed to be closer to the start of the Bronze Age in 4000BC, when charcoal was used for smelting. Copper was used for weapons, tools, jewelry, statues, pigmentation, and other art. The nation with the most use of Copper tend to win wars.
Sumeria was notable for their use of Copper during this time, which was later adopted by Egypt. They were very skilled with it and made a great amount of art with Copper.
Ancient Age (3600BC to 800BC)
The discovery of combining Tin and Copper together to make Bronze improved a great many things. Better tools and weapons. Extracting ore and processing it was improved, allowing for higher quality Copper and Bronze. Near the end of the Ancient Age, the use of Iron started to be more commonplace, as finding new mines of Tin and Copper was getting harder..
During this time, we saw a boom in civilizations, as the people were more capable to do things such as harvest crops and use tools to take on harder tasks. Egypt developed a method of using wax to mold the shape they wanted, and pouring copper/bronze to create the desire shape.
Age of Antiquity (800BC to 500AD)
Even though Steel was more popular of a metal, the use of Copper and Bronze was still used. Likely noting the anti-microbial properties (though they weren’t aware of this) and resistant to corrosion, it was put on the hull of sailing vessels.
While seen in some civilizations before this, during this time were Bronze used for currency, namely that as coins. Romans also invented Brass and used that as coins.
There was more widespread use of copper in plumping, though it was more used valves and pumps, while only some used it for tubing. Iron was often used for tubing in other cultures.
It is believed that Rome, which had access to several Copper mines, produce 17,000 tons of Copper annually. Due to crude methods of Copper extraction and smelting, produce a lot of pollution that may have affected the health of its citizens. Both the amount of Copper produced and pollution generated wouldn’t be seen again until the Industrial Revolution.
Middle Ages (500AD – 1500AD)
With the fall of Rome, the massive production of Copper disappeared. Copper production was localized to their area. During the Early middle Ages, there was a decline in the extraction of metals including Copper.
During the High Middle Ages, we saw renewed production of metal work, with new technologies invented to do more with metals. While Iron and Steel were heavily favored, Copper was still used in art. Some cultures even used it for coins.
By the Late Middle Ages, there was a brief moment of great productivity, but that stopped in the 14th Century with an Ice Age, Famine, and Plague. It took some time for society to recover.
Bells were made a lot during this time. Bells were often made of Bronze or Brass. While bells had been made since the time of the Romans, there were more widespread during this time.
Renaissance (1400AD – 1700AD)
After the problems faced near the end of the Middle Ages, there was a need to rebuild society and outdo any previous civilization before that. New understanding were developed in how things worked, that allowed new inventions to improve life.
In the 17th Century, Europe’s economy was based around the wool industry, and Brass was used extensively for pins. The use of coal made it easier to extract copper from ore and make higher quality alloys with it.
Industrial Revolution (1700AD – 1900AD)
During this time, there was a drastic demand for Copper. There were faster methods of extraction of Copper from the ore, and higher quality of alloys. Wealthy people often owned a smelting plant, while the citizens would work them. It was one of the biggest industries in the world.
Production reached to the levels of the Ancient Romans, but cause a lot of pollution. Some places that were once lush with vegetation were killed. Topsoil was affected on hillsides that it cause erosion. Livestock had swollen joints and rotten teeth. People complained of shortness of breath and decreased appetite. Some places had acid rain.
During this time, electricity was studied. Copper was found to be a good metal for electricity.
As mentioned above, we saw the development of man electronic devices, including the telegraph and telephone, both which needed copper wiring. Also big was the electronic trolley cars near the end of this period, which greatly advanced transportation.
Post-Industrial & Atomic Age (1900AD – 1980AD)
I’m combining these together. While there is a lot of history here, what drove the use of Copper was warfare.
Early on, there was a big concerned for worker safety. Companies were always looking for a way to make more profit. These methods came at the cost of injury and death. In 1913, this lead to the Copper County Strikes in Michigan. The demands were the need for shorter days, higher wages, safety, and decrease of child labour.
During the two major wars, Copper was used for wiring of vehicles such as jeeps, planes, ships, and tanks. We also saw the evolution of radios, which also made use of Copper. Bullets and shell casings were made of Brass. As costly as WWI was, WWII saw shortages in Copper and pennies were made of other materials, including the steel penny.
There was also cities that were becoming fully electrical, a building of infrastructure that required a lot of copper.
The demand during this time was greater than that of the industrial revolution and almost all of history to that point.
Information Age (1990 – Present)
With Copper in electronics, our modern technological advancement is thanks mostly to Copper. Almost everything has Copper in it. While other metals are in use to a great demand, Copper is likely used more than any other. So much has been said about this already, and we’d have to discuss individual aspects that copper is used for to truly understand everything that it does for us.
Copper, and all its alloys, will continued to be used in one form or another. It is cheap, abundant, and adaptable to any need we have. Even if you use an made-up a metal that is superior, you’ll likely still use Copper to some degree, as any metal would likely need to be created or is in low supply. Copper used as an alloy would help keep the cost down of such a metal.
There is starting to be use of a Copper-Magnesium Alloy, which will allow wires to be smaller and lighter. Likely will be used in automotive and aeronautic applications. There is a demand for superior video and voice communications, which will require new improvements in Copper productions.
Currently, the highest quality of copper is known as 4-nines, or 99.99% pure. There has been limited production of 6-nines, or 99.9999% pure. As of this time, there is no practical application for Copper this pure, as it is highly expensive to make. Some products that use Copper doesn’t even need to have 4-nines purity.
However, the price of Copper does seem to be going up, which will affect how it is used. Some countries have been looking for alternatives to Copper, such as Aluminum for cooling systems. While Copper may be superior, the price of it makes it less cost effective.
Recycling will play a big part with Copper. There are suggestions that recycled Copper is not high quality enough for Copper wires. While it could be made to that level, it is too expensive for it to be cost effective.
What will drive Copper in the future is economy, and people having the money for the latest technology that will need to be faster and smaller than before. Copper will play a part in that, likely to a greater purity or alloy (or both) that allows Copper to do more than before.
There is a lot of information here about Copper, and even then, it doesn’t cover everything. These articles are never meant as the be all guide to these subjects, but more of a starting point of things to consider.
Copper, as we can see, is highly important to any world we have. While it might be possible to have a world without Copper, it will be for a very different world. Copper provides us with many advantages that we are still trying to understand today. It is one of the first metals to be found, and though it fell out of favor after the fall of Rome, it picked up again during the Industrial Revolution and once again became one of the most important metals ever in the Modern Age.
As many stories are fantasy and Medieval-esque, there will be a lot you can do with Copper, but those things won’t be understood as why. Many cultures had beliefs around smelting, believing it to be a form of magic or the work of a God to make it possible. For a modern story or future, your universe will likely have a good understanding of Copper, but like we in our world, will not really give it much thought.
While there are a lot of metals that are capable of many different things, there are few as versatile and abundant as Copper. When you think about your world, think about where Copper fits in. Likely not using it for a sword or armour, but I bet it is on the bottom of your ship’s hull or your character walks past a bronze statue. Or even flying in a ship in deep space and in the hull is copper wiring. Something to think about.
Likely, for futuristic stories, your universe will discover a superior method of extraction, ore processing, a new alloy, or a need for higher quality metal.
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