Friday, July 6, 2012

Element of the Month: Copper!

July's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 63.546  amu
Melting Point: 1084.62 °C
Boiling Point: 2562 °C

Element 29 is delightful first and foremost in that it, although it is a metal, it is not a silvery-grey.  It is, rather, copper-colored.  This is a big deviation from the norm; no less an authority than Wikipedia asserts that Copper is "one of only three elemental metals with a natural color other than gray or silver."

Copper is pretty key to human technology and industry.  This has been true for a hella long time; after all, traditionally the period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age is what?  The Bronze Age.  And what is bronze except... well, it turns out that the whole concept of "bronze," and "brass" too for that matter, is kind of fuzzy, but in either case we're talking about alloys of Copper, with Tin, Zinc, and/or maybe a little Lead in supporting role(s).  By the time the Romans came along, Iron was the go-to metal for everyday purposes, but plenty of Copper and Copper alloy was still in use.  The main source for the Romans was the island of Cyprus, hence Cyprium, then Cuprum, and then Copper.  "The metal from Cyprus."  Cool, no?

The Centerfold!

Two thousand years later, Copper is still plenty important: one list of its uses includes "electrical power cables, data cables, electrical equipment, automobile radiators, cooling and refrigeration tubing, heat exchangers, artillery shell casings, small arms ammunition, water pipes, and jewelry."  That first one is pretty key.  Copper isn't the best element for conducting electricity, but it's the best relatively abundant one, and so it is absolutely essential to the infrastructure of your country, your town, your home, and the glowing machine on which you are reading these words.

Now there are highly populous areas of the world, such as China and India, where folks are understandably quite interested in improving the infrastructure of their economies, their towns, their homes, and their glowing machines.  This raises the question of whether there is enough Copper to go around if we all share nicely, and the answer seems to be no.  Or to be more exact, the answer seems to be sure, we can always find more Copper.  Copper is pretty much everywhere, in small amounts.  But, it will get progressively more and more difficult to mine and process it in convenient concentrations -- we've used up most of the nuggets that were just lying around.  These worries have made its market price fluctuate with bizarre rapidity in recent years; if you had bought a dollar's worth of copper in 2001, you could have unloaded in for six bucks at the beginning of 2007, and that would have been smart since it would have only been worth a little more than two bucks at the beginning of 2008.  But now the price is very high again.  Clearly, some metals-industry dudes with suits are laughing all the way to the bank, at the expense of other, sadder metals-industry dudes with suits, and probably plenty of other people as well.

The rise in Copper prices has also led to organized Copper crime, in which wire and architectural fittings are stripped, melted down, and put back into the commodities market.  This increases immediate supply, sure, but it creates certain economic inefficiencies of its own and is widely thought to be socially undesirable.

Finally, keep in mind that you need a little copper for your bones and for proper liver function.  There is such a thing as copper deficiency, and it could be fatal, but unless you have a specific gastrointestinal disease or rare genetic problems, you would have to try very, very hard to not get enough Copper in your diet.  There is also such a thing as toxic Copper accumulation in the body -- victims can, believe it or not, get copper-colored rings around their eyes -- but again, without a special genetic predisposition, you'd have to really work at poisoning yourself in this way.  Plants need Copper too; it is necessary in small amounts for photosynthesis to work.  Important stuff!


gl. said...

have we reached the point where the cost of the copper to create a penny exceeds the worth of a penny?

Michael5000 said...

Oh, long time ago! I believe pennies are copper-plated zinc? But they are still profoundly economically illogical, as are nickels. The IAT endorses single decimal-point currency reform, or a 1:10 "New Dollar," which would amount to much the same thing.