As we go about checking our phones for the latest updates, watching our favorite television shows, or even cooking our daily meals, we often don’t think about the uses of copper and other metals that fuel, power, and drive our modern lives.
From electrical appliances to jewelry, healthcare, and transport—we use copper everywhere–and its applications are only growing as the world moves towards sustainable technologies.
Understanding the Role of Copper Today
Modern economies rely on infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, construction, and energy utilities. Copper is critical to each one of these industries—supporting economic growth, urbanization, higher living standards, and a sustainable future.
How does copper do all this?
The element has five key properties that make it an integral part of the modern economy:
Let’s look at how these properties factor into major uses of the red metal today.
Copper Builds: Construction and Infrastructure
The construction and infrastructure industries use more than 40% of all copper produced. Copper’s properties make it the optimal choice for various construction activities:
Roofing: Copper’s wind resistance, aesthetic appeal, and sustainability make it a great roofing material.
Tubing: Residential heating and water systems use copper tubes for copper’s high thermal conductivity and antimicrobial properties.
Electric grids: The generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption of electricity all rely on copper wiring for its electrical conductivity and malleability.
In addition, copper lightning conductors are the longstanding protectors of buildings when lightning strikes—a further testament to its electrical properties.
Despite its widespread usage, copper remains highly affordable. Without copper, powering, wiring, and protecting our homes would prove costly and difficult.
Copper Moves: Transportation
From gas-powered cars and electrical vehicles (EVs) to trains and airplanes, copper is an essential part of our daily commute.
As the global population grows, more transportation services will be required—and copper will continue to play a crucial role.
Copper Cares: Healthcare and Hospitals
Did you know that copper can kill 99.9% of E.Coli within two hours of exposure?
This, alongside the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, makes copper’s antimicrobial properties and healthcare applications more important than ever.
More than 500 antimicrobial copper alloys are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With further research, copper could play an even bigger role in healthcare.
Copper Strengthens: Jewelry and Coinage
Copper’s durability and aesthetic appeal make it ideal for usage in jewelry and coinage, where it’s present in significant quantities.
For instance, 18K gold jewelry typically contains 75% gold, 15% silver, and 10% copper. Not only does copper strengthen gold and silver jewelry, but its alloys (brass and bronze) are also commonly used to make jewelry items that are affordable and appealing.
Furthermore, many of the coins we use are made from copper and its alloys. To be precise, two properties of copper are key to producing durable and safe coins:
Corrosion Resistance: Copper-nickel alloy coins do not tarnish.
Electrical Conductivity: Copper-nickel coins have specific electronic signatures that help prevent fraud in vending and coin-handling machines.
Copper Comforts: Homes and Households
The average single-family home contains around 200 kilograms (439 lbs) of copper.
Here’s how it breaks down, along with the amount of copper in general appliances:
Appliance/Material Amount of Copper Contained (kg)
Building Wire 88.5
Plumbing tubes and fittings 68.5
Air conditioners 23.5
Heat Pumps 21.7
Built-in appliances and other hardware 21.0
But that’s not all.
In addition to home appliances, copper also plays an important role in objects that we use on a daily basis. According to BBC, a typical iPhone contains 15 grams of copper on average—approximately 10% of the phone’s weight.
Copper is an integral part of the modern economy today. Its unique properties enable urbanization and economic development at low costs—and the story doesn’t end here.
Why Copper Tomorrow?
As the world transitions towards a cleaner energy mix, copper will be an essential material in empowering a more sustainable future.
Copper in Renewable Energy
According to McKinsey, a whopping 73% of global power generation will come from renewable energy sources by 2050—and copper has a significant role to play in this transition.
Solar and wind energy farms are heavily dependent on copper. Cabling and heat-exchange in solar and wind farms are the primary applications of copper in renewable energy generation.
For starters, wind farms can contain anywhere between 4 to 15 million pounds of copper. Moreover, solar photovoltaic farms require 9,000 pounds of copper per megawatt of energy. To put that into context, India’s solar power generation capacity is 31,696 megawatts—which alone would require about 322 million pounds of copper.
Copper in Electric Vehicles
As the standard benchmark for electrical conductivity, copper is indispensable for EVs. The growing EV market could bolster copper demand in the near future.
Copper is used in EV batteries, coils, wiring, and charging stations. As per current growth projections, by 2030, more than 250,000 tonnes of copper will be needed as part of the windings in electric traction motors in on-road EVs.
The transition to clean energy, coupled with urbanization and economic development, implies that copper is critical for the future.
However, copper’s importance to the future is a double-edged sword and raises concerns about the sustainability of its supply—will there be enough?
Copper Forever: Sustainable Material
From the 5.8 trillion pounds of known copper resources, only 12% have been mined throughout history—and thanks to copper’s recyclability, almost all of that is still in circulation.
Not only does recycled copper offer the same quality and benefits as newly mined copper, but it also saves a massive 40 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. Additionally, copper recycling uses 80-90% less energy than mining, and a total of 8.5 million tonnes of the red metal are produced from recycled scrap each year.
Copper’s recyclability makes it reusable for years to come, complementing the path to sustainable development.
Copper: Critical Today, Tomorrow, and Forever
The exceptional properties of copper allow for widespread applications, which continue to grow as the world shifts towards clean energy.
And since we need copper for all aspects of life, its demand will always persist.