Copper has many useful properties and is the world’s third most-used metal. How is copper used and which industries consume the most copper?
Copper products are widely used in building construction, electrical grids, electronic products, transportation equipment and home appliances.
A member of the holy trinity of metals along with gold and silver, copper has a long history as a critical material for the advancement of human civilization, dating back at least 8,000 years. The only base metal in the triad, copper’s numerous useful properties make it the third most-used metal in the world.
The abundance of copper uses makes the metal a valuable indicator for global economic health, and the red metal has even earned the moniker “Dr. Copper.”
Pure copper is a soft, malleable material that can be molded into a multitude of products. In addition to high corrosion resistance, copper metal has very high thermal conductivity; it also has the second highest electrical conductivity of any metal after silver. These properties make it an ideal material for electrical and electronics products, which represent about three-quarters of the world’s copper consumption.
Copper also forms alloys more freely than most metals, and corrosion-resistant copper alloys are used in many industries, including manufacturing and construction. The red metal is even employed in the medical field to curb the spread of dangerous infections.
China is the largest consumer of refined copper and accounts for 43 percent of global copper ore imports. Industrial nations like Japan, the US, Germany and Spain also rank as significant consumers of copper.
According to the US Geological Survey, the five top copper-producing countries are Chile, Peru, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the US. The island nation of Australia and the continent of Africa also represent significant sources of copper ore.
Here the Investing News Network highlights copper uses in five industries driving copper demand.
1. Building construction
Nearly half of all copper supply makes its way into buildings, from homes to businesses. In fact, one home alone can contain on average 439 pounds of copper. Copper’s malleability makes it easy to solder, and yet it’s strong enough to create the bonds and junctions needed in electrical wiring and plumbing.
Copper tubing has a number of applications and can be found in water pipes, refrigeration lines, heat pumps and HVAC systems. And don’t forget the copper wiring for moving electricity throughout the house and linking to telecommunications and cable networks. Home appliances also of course contain copper tubing and electrical wires.
2. Electronic products
Copper’s supreme electrical conductivity properties and abundance as a raw material make it the most efficient and cost-effective metal for electronic products. The red metal is found in the form of electrical wiring and printed circuit boards in the vast majority of today’s consumer electronic products — from cell phones, laptops and TVs to surveillance systems, power tools and robotic vacuum cleaners.
According to Live Science, many new products that use copper are in the research and development stages, including “soft” electronic tools such as electronic paper and wearable biosensors.
The use of copper is also highly prevalent in the transportation sector, including in the fabrication of ships, railways, planes and automobiles.
Copper alloys are standard materials in shipbuilding, from bolts and rivets to propellers and condenser pipes. In the railway industry, the metal is used to manufacture many train parts, including motors, brakes and controls, and can also be found in electric and signal systems. Planes need copper for cooling, hydraulics and navigation, along with electrical systems. In the auto industry, copper is an essential component in brakes, bearings, connectors, motors, radiators and wiring. One conventional vehicle alone can contain as much as 50 pounds of copper.
The dawn of the electric vehicle (EV) represents another huge market for copper, as the technology relies heavily on the metal. In fact, each EV requires two to four times more copper than a conventional vehicle. EV charging stations also require large amounts of copper. As a result, analysts expect copper consumption to grow 250 percent by 2030 due to the rise of the EV market.
4. Industrial machinery and equipment
The industrial machinery and equipment used in many sectors, such as the petrochemical industry, is itself made with copper. This machinery and equipment includes copper pipe systems, electrical motors, evaporators, condensers, heat exchangers, valves and containers for holding corrosive mediums.
Corrosion-resistant copper alloys are critical materials in the fabrication of undersea installations, such as desalination machinery and offshore oil and gas drilling platforms.
Although not as sizeable a market as the above-mentioned sectors, the medical field is another industry that relies on copper. This is due in large part to copper’s antimicrobial properties. Research has shown that bacteria, viruses and yeasts cannot survive for long on a copper surface as the metal interferes with the electrical charge of a microbe’s cell membranes. The US Environmental Protection Agency has said a copper surface can kill 99.9 percent of bacteria that lands on it within two hours.
To stop the spread of hospital-acquired infections, plastic and other metals are being replaced with copper or copper alloys on frequently touched surfaces, such as countertops, doorknobs, handrails, bedrails, call buttons, chairs and even pens. According to the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, replacing surfaces in hospitals with antimicrobial copper fixtures could reduce the number of hospital-acquired infections by 58 percent.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.