Causes and Effects of Increasing Global Copper Demand

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Periodic Table

Copper is a transition element. Image by Magirly.

Many people may not be aware of the issue, but the increasing demand for copper is becoming an issue all over the world. This in turn is leading to a need for greater copper recycling, and increasing instances of large-scale and highly-organized copper theft.

In this article, we will talk about the physical and chemical properties of copper, describe some of its uses, and explain why copper is becoming so “precious.”

Copper (Cu)

Copper (Cu) is a chemical element with atomic number 29; it is a transition metal (see its position in the period table above).

Cu has several properties which makes it very suitable for many different practical applications. Cu has a very high electric conductivity (5.96×10+7 S/m at 20 oC), making it the second most conductive element after silver. It is also a very good heat conductor; in fact with a conductivity of 401 W/m K (25 oC), it is second only to diamond.

Copper wires.

We use copper wires for power transmission. Image by Hans.

Copper in Electricity/Electronics

Copper is the metal used most to manufacture electric wires and cables, for instance, for power transmission and distribution; copper wires transport the electricity arriving to our homes. It is the same with the electricity used by trains and metros.

Due to its electrical conductivity, many electronic devices use copper. For these applications, however, copper can also be used as heat sink because of its thermal conductivity, dissipating the heat generated in the electric circuits, and avoiding the overheating of devices.

Copper’s Other Applications

We use Cu in many other sectors, such as the building industry — pipes and their fittings, for example, are generally made of copper.

To improve its mechanical properties, we can mix Cu with other metals to form alloys; the most common ones are brass (copper combined with zinc) and bronze (copper combined with tin).

In jewelry, we can add copper to gold-silver alloys; the jewelry made with this alloy will have a more reddish color, compared to those made with traditional gold.

Copper: Essential for Development of Society

Because of all these applications, copper is essential for the development of our modern society. Copper use is also crucial in new technologies; the industry of renewable energy relies heavily on Cu. Due to its excellent electric conductivity, the energy generated with renewable sources, whatever they are, can be transmitted in a more efficient way, maximizing its use and minimizing both the losses and the impact on the environment.

Copper Demand/Production

The demand for copper, and hence its production, has increased remarkably in recent years. From 1980 to 2010, for instance, world copper mine production almost doubled, going from about 8 to 16 million tonnes.

The latest figures available, for the year 2013, indicate a world mine production of 18.7 million tonnes. The global production of refined metal was slightly higher, at 19.7 million tonnes.

Experts expect copper demand to continue to increase over the next few years; this is due to increasing demand from emerging countries, especially China. This country in particular is growing very quickly, with many areas requiring either new or renovated/extended infrastructure; all these developments need increasing amounts of copper.

The Copper Peak?

Considering these data, the question is if we are heading towards a copper peak, that is a situation in which the copper produced is not enough to match the demand.

This problem already affects some other commodities widely used in our society; experts expect peaks in the production of oil and phosphorus, for instance, to happen in the next few years.

Decoded Science talked about this with Professor Neil Alford, head of the Department of Materials of Imperial College London (UK).

Professor Alford told us:

“Copper demand surely increased in recent years; to match it, we are already using new mining techniques, to exploit lower grade ores. Despite this, however, the estimation is that in around 30 years copper production will start declining, and we will reach the ‘copper peak’; after this the future production will not satisfy demand.

So what is the solution? Recycling will be very important, and it is already well under way in developed countries.”

Recycling/Reusing

As Professor Alford said, copper is a metal which can be recycled and reused. Using proper recycling procedures, it is possible to have good quality metallic copper, with properties and value almost as good as that of mine-produced material.

Although the amount of recycled copper used to manufacture copper devices depends on the geographical area considered, the percentages are generally quite high. In the European Union, for instance, 45 % of Cu-based products were made using recycled copper in 2012; in the US, a 33 % rate was reported for the same year.

Train wires.

Copper theft caused train delays. Image by 167287.

Copper Theft

Recycling and reusing Cu is surely a positive thing, both for the world reserves and for the environment. A less positive effect of this, however, is the increasing number of thefts registered in recent years, almost all over the world.

One reason for the occurrence of these incidents is the relatively high market value of copper scrap. To give some examples: in the European market, the value for scrap copper tubing in January 2015 was about $4,600/tonne; copper items made with purer metals would have an even higher value.

Although the prices differ from country to country, these numbers give an idea of the potential value that many items may have in a parallel/black market; because of this, copper theft occurs worldwide.

Although thefts take place in many different facilities, there are some preferred “targets,” which include the power facilities of both train and metro lines, and of large buildings (i.e. hospitals, big state offices, etc.).

Further than the economic cost, these thefts also cause problems and inconveniences, such as temporary power cuts, delays in trains, and other problems.

Which Perspectives?

Professor Alford talks about the perspectives for the future:

“Recycling and reusing copper will not be enough in the future; the next step has to be copper replacement, at least for some of the applications.

“As materials scientists, we can provide immediate solutions by suggesting alternative metals, such as gold or silver, but this is not economically feasible. So we need to broaden the search to Earth-abundant metals such as iron or aluminum, and their alloys.

“The development of new materials is also crucial. We already replace copper pipes with polymer ones, but we have also to think about copper replacements in electric circuits. Scientists are already exploring synthetic polymers with reasonable electrical conductivity, which could be used for some applications. Other ‘promising’ materials should also be considered – graphene being an obvious candidate.”

Very Important Element

This demonstrates that copper is much more valuable than you may have thought; we need to urgently develop alternative materials to replace it in some common applications (e.g., electronics), as even with improved recycling there will be insufficient copper resources in a few decades.

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