Copper is one of the best conductors of electricity, but South Africans groan when they hear the word electricity because every so often, Eskom renders us powerless for hours – with an invention they call load-shedding. So, when some urgent personal maintenance prevented me from publishing last week’s column, with our embattled power utility as the theme, I thought, oh goodie! I can shed them!
The word copper comes from the Latin word ‘cuprum’, that evolved from ‘aes cyprium’ or the ‘metal from Cyprus’ because Cyprus was one of the most important sources of this metal in Roman times.
It was the earliest metal used by humans, first on its own and later alloyed with either arsenic or tin to make bronze. While gold and silver might have been for the rich and powerful, copper made ordinary people shine, too – for about 10 000 years all over the world – first in the Balkans, then the Middle and Near East. Egypt and Europe followed suit, and the Mesoamericans did their thing from across the pond.
In Europe, 5 300 years ago, a man from the Copper Age was shot in the back with an arrow while crossing the Alps. Ötzi rested quietly in the glacial ice until hikers found his well-preserved body and possessions in 1991. His axe had a copper blade, and his hair contained large quantities of copper and arsenic, which suggested he might have been involved in smelting.
The malleability of the metal, its high thermal and electric conductivity, and extraordinary resistance to corrosion, has made it indispensable, even today. Building construction, industrial machinery, electronics and transportation cannot exist or function without it. Do you know how much copper line the insides of an electric vehicle? And we haven’t even considered the Jamesons and the Johnny Walkers, the symphony orchestras and marching bands.
You may think copper a common metal but it comprises only 0.0068% of the earth’s crust, which is small change if compared to the 6.3% and 8.1% of iron and aluminium respectively. But since the mid-1960s, the global demand has increased by over 250%! And an estimated two-thirds of the 550 million tonnes of copper produced since 1900 are still in productive use.
If this is the picture, where do we stand with regards to sustainability? How truly green are our notions about electric vehicles? What will be the consequences of depleting the coppery part of the earth’s crust?
With thanks to my editor, Carole Craig: https://astrangeanddistantpeople.com/about/