Sustainability Through Copper

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The next time you’re sipping a Moscow Mule, admire the coppery shimmer of the mug because you’re probably looking at the wave of the future.  You’re likely most aware of copper when it comes in the form of beautifully hammered jewelry or cookware.  And with good reason.  Copper has been a part of our lives . . . well, for thousands of years. 

The earliest recorded use of this versatile metal was nearly 10,000 years ago when a copper pendant was discovered in Northern Iraq.  It was later found used as axes, awls, arrowheads, and other tools.  By about 4,000 years ago it was being used in metal alloys to make more durable weapons and tools, and by about 2,000 years ago it appeared in coins.  History shows us copper used in medicine to sterilize chest wounds, in architecture as roofing, and in infrastructure as plumbing.  Without its alloy uses in brass, bronze, nickel silver, and gunmetal, you wouldn’t have canons and other weaponry, coins and medals; you might not have seen the advent of sophisticated sea clocks, watches, and other nautical instruments; and you would never have encountered that coveted symbol of America, the Liberty Bell.

These time honored uses of copper still hold true today, but it wasn’t until 1831, when Michael Faraday used a looped copper coil to create electromagnetic induction, that one of the most significant current uses of copper was discovered.  Since then, copper has become perhaps the most instrumental element in energy production. Today, 45% of this humble (but beautiful) metal’s use is in the electrical power grid. 

Back to Copper and the Future

Copper is an ideal conductor, second only to silver, but it comes at a fraction of the cost of its sister metal.  Its excellent conductive properties combined with the fact that it is 100% recyclable have made it a popular choice for renewable energy technology.  Copper is used in hydroelectric energy storage, wind turbines, and solar panels.  These energy sources alone account for roughly 12 metric tons of copper use per megawatt of power produced.  Other sustainable energy initiatives have also incorporated copper and created a higher demand.

Although two-thirds of all copper ever mined is still in use today, increased demand has put pressure on the base copper supply, and it is predicted that soon, perhaps as early as 2021, that demand will outpace supply.  The popularity of electric vehicles has been a particular source of rising demand.  Compared to traditional combustion engines, which use between 18 and 45 pounds of copper, new hybrid vehicles require closer to 85 pounds, and fully electric plug-in vehicles use nearly 130 pounds.That means in just the production of personal electric vehicles alone, copper demand is three times higher than for its combustion counterparts.

But copper is also being used in electric trains, subways, and buses, which makes it an even more desirable commodity.  And that doesn’t include the charging stations that all these electric vehicles will require.  Each charging station can use up to 8 kg of copper, and it’s predicted that by 2027, this usage alone will increase demand for copper by 216,000 metric tons.

Not convinced yet that copper is our future?  Then consider that the average single-family home contains 439 pounds of copper in the form of wiring, plumbing, and conduit.  You can find another hundred or so pounds in your dishwasher, refrigerator, and air-conditioner.  And while we’re talking about the future, those computers, the tablets, the laptops, and, yes, the cell phone glued to everyone’s hand, that’s right, copper.

A Change is Coming

The green revolution is before us, and copper promises to be a huge part of that revolution.  While traditional coal, oil, and gas based forms of electrical production are predicted to hold steady over the next 25 years, wind, geothermal, and solar technology demands are expected to rise by 15 to 25 terawatt hours during the same time frame.  Add to that, the expectation that the production of electric vehicles is forecast to rise from its current levels of about 4,000 per year to 12,000 per year by 2027 and you’re talking about a lot of copper demand. 

So the next time you’re admiring that copper necklace you bought in New Mexico, stop for a moment and watch it gleam in the mirror.  Consider how a simple pendant can be a talisman of the future, something that has been with us since our earliest times and that will carry us forward into a sustainable future.

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