Copper recycling and sustainability Back Ford
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Copper supply and demand
Sources of copper in Europe
Sources of copper in Europe - mining (primary production) and recycling (secondary production).

Copper is a metal that is naturally present in the earth's crust, is essential to the development of all forms of life and has been a vital metal in the development of civilisation. It is the oldest metal used by man - the first copper coins date from 8700 BC - and, alloyed with tin, it forms the first alloy ever used, called bronze.

The total global demand for copper in 2006 was approximately 22.8 million tonnes.

Copper comes from two sources:

  • Extraction and processing (refining) of the raw material, called 'primary production'
  • Recycling:
    • Recycling of end-of-life products, called 'secondary production'
    • Direct melt of 'new scrap' (waste resulting from the manufacturing process).

In Europe the sources of copper are as follows:

  • 59% from mining copper ore
  • 41% from recycling

Mining of copper ore
Copper minerals are distributed throughout the earth's crust and the largest copper mining country by far is Chile, which produces about 35% of the world's copper, followed by the USA with 8%. The global mining production for 2006 was about 17 million tonnes.

To meet the growing demand for copper, mining is necessary but the supply of recycled copper plays a vital part in the conservation of the finite supply of copper ore, reducing energy consumption and decreasing waste disposal, so conserving the environment.

Global copper production by country (2006)
Global copper production by country (2006)

Main uses of copper

Electrical Applications:
Approximately 65% of copper produced is used for electrical applications. Copper has the highest electrical conductivity of any metal, apart from silver, leading to applications in:

  • Power generation and transmission - motors, generators and transformers provide and deliver electricity safely and efficiently to homes and businesses. As newer, larger offices are built requiring air conditioning and ventilation systems, the demand for copper wire increases further.
  • Electrical equipment providing circuitry, wiring and contacts for PCs, TVs and mobile phones.

25% of all the copper produced is used in buildings, for plumbing, roofing and cladding. Copper provides light, durable maintenance-free structures that are naturally good looking, long lasting and fully recyclable.

Copper was first used by the ancient Egyptians for water piping; samples taken from a temple dated 2750 BC are still in good condition. Copper was also used by the Romans as water pipes and cisterns.

Trains, trams, cars and lorries all need copper and transport accounts for 7% of copper usage.

The high purity copper wire harness system carries the current from the battery throughout the vehicle to equipment such as lights, central locking, on board computers and satellite navigation systems. Electric motors, which are wound with high conductivity wire, are used in many of these devices. The average car contains about 1km of wire.

Electric super trams in cities such as Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon, provide clean, efficient transport powered by electric motors. The overhead contact wires are either copper-silver or copper-cadmium alloys.

Growing copper demand
Global demand for refined copper has risen significantly in the last 100 years

The remaining 3% is used for coins, sculptures, musical instruments and cookware.

Growing demand for copper
Since the beginning of the 20th century, global demand for refined copper has risen from 0.5 million tonnes (1900 figure) to 17.1 million tonnes in 2006.

Recycled copper helps to meet the growing demand for copper. Of all the copper needed across the world, 34% comes from recycling. In Europe, this figure is even higher (41%). This is an example of the sustainable nature of copper.

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1. In Europe, what percentage of copper is obtained from recycling?
2. Which property of copper accounts for its largest application?
3. How are super trams powered?
4. Recycling demonstrates the nature of copper