Copper – A Metal Used Through The Ages
Copper was one of the first metals ever extracted and used by humans, and it has made vital contributions to sustaining and improving society since the dawn of civilization. Copper was first used in coins and ornaments starting about 8000 B.C., and at about 5500 B.C., copper tools helped civilization emerge from the Stone Age. The discovery that copper alloyed with tin produces bronze marked the beginning of the Bronze Age at about 3000 B.C.
Copper is easily stretched, molded, and shaped; is resistant to corrosion; and conducts heat and electricity efficiently. As a result, copper was important to early humans and continues to be a material of choice for a variety of domestic, industrial, and high-technology applications today.
How Do We Use Copper Today?
Presently, copper is used in building construction, power generation and transmission, electronic product manufacturing, and the production of industrial machinery and transportation vehicles. Copper wiring and plumbing are integral to the appliances, heating and cooling systems, and telecommunications links used every day in homes and businesses. Copper is an essential component in the motors, wiring, radiators, connectors, brakes, and bearings used in cars and trucks. The average car contains 1.5 kilometers (0.9 mile) of copper wire, and the total amount of copper ranges from 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in small cars to 45 kilograms (99 pounds) in luxury and hybrid vehicles.
Ancient Uses of Copper
As in ancient times, copper remains a component of coinage used in many countries, but many new uses have been identified. One of copper’s more recent applications includes its use in frequently touched surfaces (such as brass doorknobs), where copper’s antimicrobial properties reduce the transfer of germs and disease. Semiconductor manufacturers have also begun using copper for circuitry in silicon chips, which enables microprocessors to operate faster and use less energy. Copper rotors have also recently been found to increase the efficiency of electric motors, which are a major consumer of electric power.
What Properties Make Copper Useful?
The excellent alloying properties of copper have made it invaluable when combined with other metals, such as zinc (to form brass), tin (to form bronze), or nickel. These alloys have desirable characteristics and, depending on their composition, are developed for highly specialized applications. For example, copper-nickel alloy is applied to the hulls of ships because it does not corrode in seawater and reduces the adhesion of marine life, such as barnacles, thereby reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency. Brass is more malleable and has better acoustic properties than pure copper or zinc; consequently, it is used in a variety of musical instruments, including trumpets, trombones, bells, and cymbals.
Types of Copper Deposits
Copper occurs in many forms, but the circumstances that control how, when, and where it is deposited are highly variable. As a result, copper occurs in many different minerals. Chalcopyright is the most abundant and economically significant of the copper minerals.
Research designed to better understand the geologic processes that produce mineral deposits, including copper deposits, is an important component of the USGS Mineral Resources Program. Copper deposits are broadly classified on the basis of how the deposits formed. Porphyry copper deposits, which are associated with igneous intrusions, yield about two-thirds of the world’s copper and are therefore the world’s most important type of copper deposit. Large copper deposits of this type are found in mountainous regions of western North and South America.
Another important type of copper deposit-the type contained in sedimentary rocks-accounts for approximately one-fourth of the world’s identified copper resources. These deposits occur in such areas as the central African copper belt and the Zechstein basin of Eastern Europe.
Individual copper deposits may contain hundreds of millions of tons of copper-bearing rock and commonly are developed by using open-pit mining methods. Mining operations, which usually follow ore discovery by many years, often last for decades. Although many historic mining operations were not required to conduct their mining activities in ways that would reduce their impact on the environment, current Federal and State regulations do require that mining operations use environmentally sound practices to minimize the effects of mineral development on human and ecosystem health.
USGS mineral environmental research helps characterize the natural and human interactions between copper deposits and the surrounding aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Research helps define the natural baseline conditions before mining begins and after mine closure. USGS scientists are investigating climatic, geologic, and hydrologic variables to better understand the resource-environment interactions