It goes by many names. The Chinese call it “qi” – the symbol of health. The ancient Egyptians called it “ankh” – the symbol of eternal life.
Us modern folk? We just call it “Copper”. And although we mostly use it for pennies, keys, and 3rd-place prizes these days, copper is loaded with the amazing health properties that earned it deep respect in the ancient world.
Lately, one of these properties has brought this “magic metal” a ton of well-deserved attention: Copper is naturally 99.9% antimicrobial – meaning it kills 99.9% of germs simply by coming into contact with them!
As you can imagine, the recent global situation has made copper a superstar again (the ancient Egyptians would be proud!). We’re starting to see calls for more copper surfaces (especially in hospitals), and there’s even an innovative new device that uses copper’s antimicrobial properties to help prevent contact with germs in your daily life.
So today, we’re going to dive into this curious mineral. You’ll learn where copper comes from and how it kills germs, plus some innovative examples of how it’s being used around the world today. Let’s go!
What is copper, exactly?
Copper is a metal with the symbol Cu (which comes from the Latin “cuprum”). It’s soft (compared to other metals), meaning it can be easily formed into new shapes, like wires (making it “ductile”) and sheets (making it “malleable”). It conducts heat and electricity very well, which is why you often see it used in electronics and household appliances.
Copper has a bunch of different properties, but two stand out above the rest:
- Copper is naturally antimicrobial – it’s famous for its “contact killing” capability, which causes germs to die on its surface.
- Copper changes in appearance over time – but unlike normal rust, this change in appearance actually protects the copper.
We’ll discuss both of these properties in a moment – but first, a quick look at where copper comes from (and its fascinating history)!
Where does copper come from?
Copper is typically mined or extracted as copper sulfides from large open pit mines. Two of the three largest copper mines are in the USA: one is in Utah and the other is in New Mexico. The largest mine in the world is in Chuquicamata, Chile.
Most importantly, copper is a “native metal” – meaning it appears naturally in a usable form, unlike many other metals which need to be refined. That’s why it was so popular in ancient times. In fact, human use of copper extends all the way back to 8000 BCE!
It was also the first metal to be smelted, molded, and combined with other metals. In 3500 BCE, tin was alloyed with copper to create bronze – the first example of this process in our history.
Fun fact: In ancient Roman times, copper was almost exclusively mined on the island of Cyprus. That’s where the name comes from: the original Latin for “copper” was aes cyprium, which was later simplified to cuprum. Indeed… human civilizations have revered copper for its health benefits and usefulness since the beginning of our history!
So, how exactly does copper provide health benefits? (And what’s up with that weird rust?!)
How copper protects against germs
As we mentioned, copper is naturally 99.9% antimicrobial. That means 99.9% of germs die simply by coming into contact with it!
This is NOT the case with most other materials. Germs like influenza, E. coli, MRSA and even coronaviruses can live on most surfaces for 4-5 days – but when they hit copper, they start to die almost immediately. After a few hours, most are completely undetectable.
Copper performs its antimicrobial magic with copper ions. These ions essentially disguise themselves as essential nutrients, which allows them to “sneak into” bacteria and viruses. Once inside, they destroy the cell’s membrane, causing it to slowly die.
“We’ve seen viruses just blow apart,” says Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. “They land on copper and it just degrades them.”
Now, you may be thinking: Why don’t we use copper everywhere?! Well, we actually do use a lot of copper already – for example, drinking fountains use copper in the pipes to keep the germs at bay. But lately, there has been a big push in the medical community to cover more surfaces in copper (and copper alloys like brass or bronze). And there’s even a way you can enjoy the protective power of copper in your own daily life – more on that in a moment!
How copper protects itself with “good rust”
Although copper’s antimicrobial properties are probably most fascinating, it also has an odd way of showing its age.
Unlike other metals, copper does not react with water – so it doesn’t “rust” the same way. However, it does experience oxidation, which occurs when an element loses electrons (and/or hydrogen) upon interacting with another element (in this case, oxygen).
This creates an oxide layer, which actually protects the underlying metal from corroding further by creating a seal. That’s how you can tell when you have authentic copper – it will change color over time, while fake copper will remain suspiciously shiny.
Take the Statue of Liberty, for example. It’s made of genuine (and fully oxidized) copper – which is why it’s green!
So! That’s a quick summary of why copper is such a fascinating, magical metal. We expect to see it popping up in hospitals, public spaces and other areas where germs gather. In fact, there’s even a new invention that allows you to benefit from copper’s protective qualities in your daily life!
An innovative, timely use of copper: The Aviano Copper Protector
Ideally, our whole world would be covered in copper. However, that’s not realistic (and even if it were, it would take a long time).
So, if you can’t cover the world in copper, what’s the next best thing? Yup… bring copper with you everywhere!
The smart design features hooks and loops that allow you to open doors, turn locks, use the ATM, and more – plus, it fits on a keychain (and even works on smartphones)!
We love the Copper Protector because it’s a perfect example of how nature’s innovations can often be the most effective. Sometimes we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we just need to coat it in copper!
Conclusion: We didn’t know copper was so cool… did you?
We had a lot of fun learning about copper for this article – we had no idea how important it’s been throughout history, and it’s great to see it getting attention again (although we perhaps wish it were for a different reason).
In addition, we expect to see more and more innovations like the Aviano Copper Protector, along with public spaces starting to take on its iconic off-pink hue as we all work together to find solutions for a healthier world.
Psst… is there a natural innovation you’re curious about? Want to know anything else about copper? Let us know in the comments below!