Copper: Natural, Recyclable and Essential

Of all the materials used by man, copper has had the most profound effect on civilization. From the dawn of civilization and into the third millenium, copper has played, and continues to play a vital role in contributing to, sustaining and improving society. What makes copper and copper-based products so valuable to us, and why do societies depend on them? Copper's chemical, physical and aesthetic properties make it a material of choice in a wide range of domestic, industrial, and high technology applications. Copper is ductile, corrosion resistant, malleable, and an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. Alloyed with other metals, such as zinc (to form brass), aluminum or tin (to form bronzes), or nickel for example, it can acquire new characteristics for use in highly specialized applications. In fact, society's infrastructure is based upon, in part, on copper. For instance, copper is used for:

conducting electricity and heat;
transporting water and gas;
roofing, gutters and downspouts;
protecting plants and crops, and as a feed supplement; and
making statues and other forms of art.

Copper has been in use for 10,000 years, yet, it is still a high technology material, as evidenced by the development of the copper chip by the semi-conductors industry.

Copper occurs naturally in the environment in a variety of forms. It can be found in sulfide deposits (as chalcopyrite, bornite, chalcocite, covellite), in carbonate deposits (as azurite and malachite), in silicate deposits (as chrysycolla and dioptase), and as pure "native" copper.

Copper is one of the most recycled of all metals. It is our ability to recycle metals over and over again that makes them a material of choice. Recycled copper (also known as secondary copper) cannot be distinguished from primary copper (copper originating from ores), once reprocessed. Recycling copper extends the efficiency of use of the metal, results in energy savings, and contributes to ensuring that we have a sustainable source of metal for future generations.

Copper also occurs naturally in humans, animals, and plants. Organic life forms have evolved in an environment containing copper. As a nutrient and essential element, copper is vital to maintaining health. Life sustaining functions depend on copper.

World Copper Production and Consumption, 1960-1997

Economic, technological and societal factors influence the supply and demand of copper. As society's need for copper increases, new mines and plants are introduced and existing ones expanded. In times of market surplus, existing operations can be scaled back or closed down, while planned expansions can be delayed or canceled.

Copper Mine Production

World production:
1900: 495 kt
1997: 11526 kt

Trend growth rates:

Since 1900: 3.2%/year

1960s: 3.4%/year
1970s: 2.6%/year
1980s: 2.2%/year
1990s: 3.1%/year

Last 20 years: 2.1%/year

Last 5 years: 4.3%/year

Changes in Copper Mine Production

Traditionally an important supplier of copper ores and concentrates, Chile has increased its share of world production from 13% in 1978 to 29% in 1997. Chile produced 3392 thousand tonnes in 1997.

Africa, however, experienced a 52% reduction in its mine production between 1978 and

Copper Smelter Production

Smelting is the pyrometallurgical process used to produce copper metal. Recently, the trend to recover copper directly from ores through leaching processes has been on the increase (see section on Refined Copper Production).

Primary smelters use mine concentrates as their main source of feed (although some use copper scrap as well).

Secondary copper smelters use copper scrap (mainly low grade) as their feed

Copper Smelter Production by Region, 1997 (thousand tonnes)

World Smelter Production: 11182 kt

Half of the world's smelter production comes from four countries:

Chile 1390 kt
China 969 kt
Japan 1350 kt
U.S. 1721 kt

Refined Copper Production

With the gradual emergence of solvent extraction-electrowinning (SX-EW) technology, refined copper produced from leaching ores now accounts for 13% of production.

Recognizing the economic, as well as environmental importance of recycling, part of refined production is sourced from scrap.

Changes in Refined Copper Production

Refinery Production 1997: 13564 thousand tonnes

In less than 30 years, South America, and in particular Chile, has emerged as one of the world's major suppliers of refined copper metal. From modest production levels of 177 kt in 1960, South American production has increased by 1425%. Similarly, Asia increased its production by 800% over the same period, most of which occurred in Japan and China.


Trends in Refining Capacity

Refining Capacity 1998: 16228 thousand tonnes

During the 1980's and the first half of the 1990's, world refining capacity averaged 12331 kt. Over the following four years total refining capacity increased by 26%, as compared to the previous 15 year average.

Electrowinning capacity has increased by 286%, most of which

Copper Fabricators

1997 Production of Copper and Copper Alloy Shapes (copper content, thousand tonnes)

Source: Europe: International Wrought Copper Council; Japan: World Bureau of Metal Statistics; United States: Copper Development Association, Inc.
Note: Data shown for three major copper-fabricating regions only, which together account for an estimated 60% of world production of fabricated copper and copper alloy shapes. Europe includes member states of the European Union, Hungary, Norway and Switzerland. The copper content of copper alloys was estimated using 70% copper content in alloys. Due to rounding, sums may not equal totals.




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