Copper: key properties and range of applications

In the periodic table, the element copper has the symbol ‘Cu’ and an Atomic number of 29. Copper is not only found in the earth but the human body has traces of it, most notably in the liver, muscles, and bones. Certain foods even contain copper such as leafy greens, certain types of seafood, nuts, and seeds.

Copper, from prehistory to space exploration.

As the earliest known metal to be worked by man, it could be argued that copper was an important kickstarter on the way to modern civilisation. Copper is found in a pure form as well as the relatively easy method of extraction from ore, giving early humans easy access to it. The malleability of copper and the ease with which it can be shaped meant that its use has significantly expanded over the centuries. Anything from weapons, works of art, and the humble copper pipe have been made from it.

The space shuttle used engines made of copper for all of its manned flights. The ability to alloy copper with other metals, such as zinc, to make brass and with tin to make bronze (to name the most common) has further increased its versatility. A full list of alloys can be found here:

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Copper, The Making of the modern world.

With the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention and use of electricity, copper has really come into its own. The ability of the metal to conduct heat and electricity has seen it become a vital part of almost all wiring systems. Its ability to conduct heat means it can quickly dissipate heat, hence its use in Nasa’s space shuttle engines which work at very high temperatures. The impermeable nature of copper means it is ideal as a conduit for water, no harmful substances outside the piping are able to permeate it, making it safe for drinking water.

Before the widespread use of copper, piping would often contain lead which proved extremely harmful to health, especially with long-term exposure to it. The longevity of copper also makes it ideal for use in plumbing. Some of its many applications can be seen here:

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Copper, the unseen miracle worker.

Most copper applications are hidden from sight, cased in plastic in electrical wires, beneath the sink as piping or at the bottom of a saucepan, but it’s hard to imagine the modern world without it.

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