Copper: The first metal mastered by man
Last year we began a series of posts in which we answer typical questions about the various commodities we cover with our Consensus Forecast commodities report. Our first posts were on Brent and WTI crude oil as well as gold. Last month we covered iron ore, one of the most important yet underappreciated commodities. This time we've gone with copper, man's first metal. Keep checking back with us for more in our commodities explainer series.
Copper consumption and production
Before getting to copper's history, which is a long one, we should discuss copper in the present-day. About one-third of copper production comes from Latin America, with the majority of that coming from Chile. According to the United States Geological Survey, Chile and Peru are the top copper producers globally with an estimated 5.5 million tons and 2.3 million tons, respectively. China and the United States are the next on the list with 1.74 million tons and 1.41 million tons produced.
In terms of copper reserves, Chile is again by far and way the leader with an estimated 210 million tons with Australia and Peru the next on the list with 89 million and 81 million, respectively. See the entire list from the 2017 USGS below.
As was the case for most commodities between 2000 and 2014, copper consumption increased massively, especially from emerging markets like China and the other BRIC countries. Consumption fell after the commodities super cycle ended, however, it appears that it is slowly creeping its way up again. See an image below from the FocusEconomics Consensus Forecast report for Base Metals showing our production and consumption forecasts through 2020.
Copper history: Early discovery and uses
Copper’s history is a chronicle of human endeavor that dates to prehistoric times with some archaeological evidence suggesting that copper has been used going back 11,000 years. It has been called the first metal mastered by man, as it has a long and storied history.
The oldest known piece of copper used by humans is a pendant that dates back to 8700 BC found not too long ago in northern Iraq. And this is where we will start our journey, over 10,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia where civilization began.
It took a few thousand years for our ancient ancestors to progress with their use of copper, but by the 5th to 6th millennia BC, humans discovered how easily copper could be manipulated to create shapes. First they learned that it could easily be hammered into sheets to form shapes and as their skills increased so did the complexity of their work as casting became commonplace to create more intricate objects. Despite the time it took for this to happen, we have to give our ancestors some credit, it was a long time ago. To give you some perspective on how long ago this was, the UK and Ireland were still part of the European mainland continent.
Around 5000 BC humans first began creating tools and weapons out of copper. Although pure copper was used for this purpose, it proved to be too soft in its pure form to be used effectively, so a more durable option was discovered: Bronze. During the 4th millennium BC, copper’s principle alloys, Bronze and Brass were discovered, the former discovery leading to one of the great "ages" of human history, the Bronze Age.
Copper history: The Bronze Age and the Roman Empire
By the 2nd millennium BC, the use of copper and particularly bronze, spread out from Mesopotamia to Europe and as far east as China. Literature from the era shows how developed China’s knowledge of metallurgy was, documenting exact proportions of various kinds of metals to create different grades of alloys for casting into items such as arrows, axes, bells, mirrors, spears and swords.
Around this time in ancient Egypt, copper was being used for piping to convey water in the pyramids, while copper and bronze were also used for balances, instruments, mirrors, razors and weights, among other things.
Although iron smelting ushered in the Iron Age around the 2nd millenium BC, copper and bronze use continued unfettered, especially during the Roman Era. The vast geographical area of the Roman Empire and Roman Republic meant that copper could be mined from as far east as Turkey to as far west as Spain. In fact, copper’s name comes from the Latin word cyprium, most likely since much of the Roman Empire’s copper came from modern-day Cyprus.
The demand for copper was mostly due to the need for coinage. The Romans experimented with various alloys for this purpose, but copper was used in all of them from copper-nickel alloys to brass. The first widely distributed coin made with copper was the Roman dupondius which was made of brass and circulated from 23 BC to AD 200.
In addition to coins, the Romans built massive water systems that were fitted with copper and bronze plumbing. Copper and Bronze were also used for things such as helmets, shields, spears and swords. Production of weapons did eventually shift to iron as the production of iron was less onerous since it was not an alloy like Bronze or Brass, however, ceremonial and decorative items continued to be made from Bronze and Brass.
Despite the shift to iron, the metal’s ability to resist corrosion along with its other favorable properties, which we discuss later in this post, ensured that copper and its principle alloys were used for functional purposes in addition to decorative ones through the Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution, up to the present day.
Copper history: The Industrial Revolution and the Electricity Age
James Watt’s steam engine marked a key point during the Industrial Revolution and ushered in the modern world. It was dependent largely on iron and coal, however, copper and its alloys played a rather significant role themselves. Nonetheless, copper’s real time to shine did not come until the advent of electricity, when it became the de facto metal for electrical wiring, which it remains to this day.
The 19th century as a whole saw rapid progress in electrical science, laying the foundation for the Electrical Age. However, the late 19th century and thereafter saw a massive jump in demand for copper as tremendous progress was made in electrical engineering while supply increased with new discoveries in mining and smelting techniques. During the 19th century Britain’s superiority in smelting technology made it the world’s major producer of copper, however, mines in the United States, Chile and part of Africa were opened, challenging Britain’s preeminent position. In the early 20th century, innovations in mining and smelting techniques were developed in the U.S. and elsewhere that made it easier to produce copper from lower grades of ore, which resulted in a dramatic expansion of the global copper market. In 1911, the world’s output of smelted copper exceeded a million annual tons for the first time and by 1925 half of all homes in the United States had electric power, 50 years after Thomas Edison’s invention of the first incandescent light.
Copper has been traded on the London Metal Exchange (LME) since its founding in 1877. In fact, it was the only metal traded on the LME until Lead and Zinc were added later. Copper has many favorable properties, which make it a highly functional metal. Some of these include its high ductility, malleability, resistance to corrosion, and electrical conductivity. Because of this, copper is one the most important industrial metals and is used in myriad capacities, especially in construction, electronics, and automobiles and it’s price is therefore highly linked to the health of the global economy.
With that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the uses of copper.
What do we use copper for?
Today, more than 5 million tons of copper are produced annually. It is the third most used metal globally just behind aluminium and steel. Copper and its alloys play vital roles in modern technology and therefore, in our own lives, even if we do not realize it. Copper’s ability to stretch under tensile stress, also known as ductility, led the Ancient Egyptians to use it as water piping dating back to the 4th millennium BC. In the present day, copper is still used in the same capacity all over the world. Copper’s resistance to corrosion, a key reason the Roman’s used it thousands of years ago as the material for the roof of the Pantheon, still in near perfect condition today in Rome, is used for the very same purpose on countless homes and buildings. Copper’s electrical conductivity, which was used during Michael Faraday’s groundbreaking discovery of electromagnetic induction, is still key to modern power generation.
But for what else do we use copper? Well, as it was back in the days of the Roman Empire, it is still one of the principle metals used in the production of coin currency. For example, all U.S. dollar coins are now some kind of copper alloy. Copper is also used in the production of firearms.
As previously mentioned, copper’s ductility and the fact that it is a good conductor of electricity and heat makes it ideal for wiring which is used in just about anything that runs on electricity or battery power. In addition to being used for piping, it is also used in many household fixtures that we can actually see. Many doorknobs and hand rails are made of some kind of copper alloy, usually brass because it looks nice, but also because copper is a natural antibacterial. This makes it ideal for things that are touched by the hands of many people, especially in public places.
Copper sulfate, which is an inorganic compound that combines sulfur and copper, is used as an agricultural poison and an algicide in water purification. Copper compounds are also used in chemical tests for sugar detection.
Copper is also an essential element, meaning that we as humans need around 1.2 milligrams of copper per day to help transfer energy in our cells. However, excess copper is toxic. As they say, everything in moderation.
How is copper mined and processed?
Mining copper is a complicated process, so we will just take you through the basics. Copper mining starts with prospecting where geologists use sophisticated techniques like sampling to determine if an area of land has enough copper to make the mining financially viable, or in other words, worth it for the company doing the mining. Once that is confirmed, copper is mined from massive open pit mines in the form of ore. After ore is taken from the mine, it must then be processed to extract the copper. The ore is crushed and ground to liberate the desired minerals from the waste minerals, also known as gangue minerals. What is left is roasted in furnaces to produce matte, which is essentially the molten minerals. Then it must be refined through various other processes including electrolysis to separate the copper from the other minerals which results in 99.9% pure copper.
If you’d like to learn the specifics of copper processing and mining, have a look a this text from the University of Arizona.
That about wraps it up on copper. If you have any other questions related to copper or would like suggest another commodity for us to cover in our next explainer post, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, don't forget to download one of our sample reports by clicking on the button below.
Read some of our other Commodities Explainer posts:
What is the difference between Brent and WTI crude oil?
Gold: A History of Obsession - Part 1
Gold: The most precious of metals - Part 2
Gold: THe most precious of metals - Part 3
Iron ore: A most underappreciated commodity
5-year economic forecasts on 30+ economic indicators for 127 countries & 33 commodities.
Date: November 28, 2017
TagsExchange Rate Germany Turkey TPP Sub-Saharan Africa Portugal Eurozone Consensus Forecast Energy Commodities Brazil Economic Growth (GDP) Euro Area Oil Brexit Ukraine Asia United Kingdom Vietnam United States Eastern Europe Healthcare G7 China Cryptocurrency Banking Sector South Africa Precious Metals Commodities Housing Market India Trade Company News Major Economies Colombia Russia Iran USA Investment France MENA Tunisia Gold Forex Japan Argentina Emerging Markets Africa Base Metals Commodities precious metals Inflation Agricultural Commodities Unemployment rate UK Bitcoin Mexico Commodities oil prices European Union OPEC Infographic Latin America IMF Australia Greece Venezuela Spain Canada Nordic Economies Italy
Analysts see base metal prices rising 7.6% year-on-year in Q4 2019 (last month: +6.2% yoy). Read more: https://t.co/KlgaC9IbxP
12 hours ago
The Guatemalan economy is projected to expand 3.1% in 2019 and 3.0% in 2020. Read more: https://t.co/JdM2ep1Com
14 hours ago
Argentina's inflation is expected to be 29.0% at the end of 2019, which is up 1.2 percentage points from last month… https://t.co/6Z6z1lcdgY
16 hours ago
GDP in Brazil is seen growing 2.4% in 2019, which is up 0.1 percentage points from last month's forecast, and expan… https://t.co/hHt506suN2
16 hours ago
Agricultural prices are expected to increase 5.6% year-on-year in Q4 2019 on solid food demand thanks to the world'… https://t.co/rBF0qJ4clw
18 hours ago
- Canada in 2019: Interview with a Top Economic Forecaster
- Pound Sterling 2019 Exchange Rate: Projections from Leading Analysts
- Expectations for Latin America’s Economy in 2019
- Ethiopia and Rwanda: From Destruction to Development
- Key commodities trends to look out for in 2019
- What drove Gulf neighbors to bail out Bahrain?
- The Four Financial Bubbles and Their Impact on the U.S. Economy
- The Poorest Countries in the World
- Italy: The sick man of Europe
- What does Bolsonaro's presidential win mean for Brazil's economic outlook?
- The World's Top 10 Largest Economies
- In Latin America, taxpayers are tapped to shoulder the burden of a bank bailout
- How and when will the next financial crisis happen? - 26 experts weigh in
- China and Africa: A partnership under the spotlight
- The conditions are ripe for a Global Financial Crisis 2.0
- Uncertainty, instability and fear haunt a generation of Argentinians
- 5 things: What to expect for Mexico's economy in 2019
- 5 things: Brazil's economic downturn and what to expect going forward
- Emerging Market Currency Crisis: Everything you need to know
- Which ASEAN countries are most exposed in the event of a U.S.-China trade war?
- 75 Top Economics Influencers to Follow
- Emerging Markets Economic Outlook 2018 and 2019
- The Faces Behind Latin America’s Key Institutions
- 2019 Economic Outlook for the Top Oil Producing Countries
- Is your cup of coffee about to get more expensive going in to 2019?
- The Economic Implications of an Aging Global Population
- Can the Wisdom of the Crowds predict the results of the 2018 World Cup?
- Railway Mania: The Largest Speculative Bubble You’ve Never Heard Of
- From Riches to Rags: Have Cryptocurrencies Crashed for Good?
- Investment looks to Latin America, but forecasts are not encouraging
- Turkey: Erdogan has cemented his grip on power - now what about the economy?
- How can Latin America’s business environment benefit from technological change?
- Mexico: A look at the past, present and future as elections yield AMLO victory
- Italy’s New Populist Government and the Eurozone: Prelude to a Crisis?
- Latin America moves toward increased integration as U.S. protectionism grows
- How can Latin America increase productivity without affecting the quality of employment?
- How will Saudi Arabia's economy benefit from lifting the women's driving ban?
- Which countries are the most prepared for the upcoming digital revolution?
- India Under Pressure from the U.S. on Trade Policy
- The Story of Steel
- Latin America is the World Leader in eCommerce Growth Despite Serious Challenges
- What the TPP means for trade in Latin America
- Elections in Russia: Analysis and Implications
- Nearly a Third of Latin Americans Have No Right to a Pension
- A Look at Healthcare Models Around the World
- Newly-elected Chilean President Sebastian Piñera faces a myriad of challenges - economic and otherwise
- The Economic Effects of Trade Protectionism
- Regional Disparity: The Dark Side of Inequality in Latin America
- Coal: The story of the world's most abundant fossil fuel
- Gold: The Most Precious of Metals (Part 3)
- Venezuela's Electoral Conundrum
- Trump's 1st Year: 95 Analysts Surveyed on U.S. Economy
- The Latest on China and What's in Store for 2018
- An in-depth look at the Eurozone’s booming economy and the challenges that lurk in the shadows
- Increasing poverty in Latin America takes a breather thanks to improving economic dynamics
- What will be the most miserable economies in 2018?
- Is Spain doing enough to address its high youth unemployment rate?
- Has Latin America gone far enough in reducing barriers to international trade?
- Commodities Outlook: Oil, Natural Gas, Coal, Lead & Tin
- 21 experts tell us what the future looks like for cryptocurrencies and blockchain
- Turkish lira plummets to all-time low on Erdogan’s monetary feud and tense U.S.-Turkey relations
- Copper: The first metal mastered by man
- Nigerian Economy Still Treading Water Thanks to Oil Sector
- The Mercosur-EU Free Trade Agreement: Obstacles & Opportunities
- Elections in Chile: What the results could mean for the economy
- QE’s Untold Story: A Chart That Fed Correspondents Need To Investigate
- Holland’s fragile one-seat majority government targets economic growth at the expense of fiscal sustainability
- South Africa: Economy at a tipping point?
- Latin American Commodities: What’s behind the increase in demand and prices?
- Is the UK really "shackled to a corpse"?
- Spain-Catalonia: 7 economic experts weigh in on how the situation will affect the outlook
- How well is Spain's labor market doing since the crisis?
- Which countries will have the highest and lowest inflation in 2017?
- How vulnerable is Latin America to economic crises today?
- Iron ore facts and common questions answered
- The bulging economic costs of obesity
- How much investment is needed to salvage Latin America’s crumbling infrastructure?
- A Look at the Potential Impact of Brexit on the Dutch Economy
- Emerging Markets Are Kicking Into Higher Gear In 2017
- Why is foreign direct investment in Latin America falling again?
- Are Central Banks Nationalising the Economy?
- Bounty or burden? The impact of refugees on European economies is far from clear
- What’s the future of U.S.-Latin America trade relations?
- Taxes or cutbacks? Latin America's challenge of sustaining spending without causing debt to skyrocket
- Are uranium prices making a comeback?
- Taxing the Economy: Achieving a Delicate Balance
- How will Latin America’s upcoming lengthy election cycle affect the reform agenda and credit ratings?
- How will emerging market economies perform in 2017?
- Chilean Economy in Focus: Interview with Senior Economist of the Chamber of Commerce of Santiago
- CEOs Rank Top Economies for Growth Opportunities
- The Mobile Ecosystem & Latin America's Economy
- Prospects and Challenges for the Global Economy: Interview with Tim Cooper from BMI Research
- How will the Fed reduce its balance sheet & and how will the ECB end QE? - 19 economic experts weigh in
- Thoughts on "unwinding" QE from Frances Coppola
- The Fed and ECB at a crossroads: Unwinding QE
- Spain: The economy that continues to silence the critics
- Latin America: The Most Unequal Region in the World
- The History of OPEC: Has it been a Success?
- FocusEconomics Announces 2017 Analyst Forecast Awards Winners
- Latin America’s rising unemployment bucks nearly decade long trend
- Escape from the Central Bank Trap by Daniel Lacalle
- China's economic rebalancing act: What to look out for in 2017
- Driving Growth in Latin America: Challenges & Priorities
- Is the Global Economy Rebalancing?
- Commodity exporters face challenging times
- Recent Global Events Facilitate Mercosur-Pacific Alliance
- 23 economic experts weigh in: Why is productivity growth so low?
- Mexico's outlook as Trump nears 100-day mark
- Interview with Oxford Economics Senior Economist on implications of the possible outcomes of the French Presidential Election
- The anxiety of the small saver in a world of negative interest rates
- Brexit negotiations. Between Uncertainty and Urgency
- An Economic History of the EU from El Blog Salmón
- Baby Boomin': Implications of high population growth in Latin America
- Survey of International Economists Predicts a Le Pen Defeat in French Elections, Says Macron has Best Economic Plan
- Spain in a global context: developed economy with some challenges
- How much is crime costing Latin America?
- Predictions & Estimates from Economist Daniel Lacalle
- What economy will the new Dutch government inherit?
- “The data is not a true reflection of reality in India” Interview with Société Générale India Economist
- What are the prospects for Emerging Economies in 2017?
- What to expect in Asia for 2017
- Top Economics & Finance Blogs of 2017
- Latam to Resume Moderate Growth in 2017 but Important Risks Plague Outlook
- 4 Key European Elections That Will Impact the Economy in 2017
- How are security concerns and political chaos affecting Turkey’s economy?
- Global growth to edge up in 2017
- Set to breach targets again? Debt and deficit outlooks for Southern European Eurozone countries in 2016 & 2017
- What does Donald Trump mean for the U.S. economy?
- How will emerging markets perform in 2017?
- The economic impact of a break in U.S.-Philippines ties
- Trump election: Base metals surge due to infrastructure plan
- 5 updates on the Venezuelan economic crisis
- Canada: When your neighbor’s house is on fire…
- Short-term pain before long-term gain? A look at French labor reform and economic growth
- Asia: Unremarkable growth & unfulfilled promises?
- How India's latest monsoon is affecting the economy
- Innovation in Latin America: Potential Goes Untapped Due to Weak Economic Conditions
- Russian economy update in wake of OPEC deal announcement
- The Wisdom of the Crowds and the Consensus Forecast
- Can the peso predict the U.S. election results?
- There's no end in sight to the Venezuela crisis
- A Look at the European Union Political Calendar
- Survey of international economists shows uncertainty surrounding elections damaging U.S. growth prospects
- FocusEconomics partners with leading online statistics provider Statista
- China: Recent postive economic data may be papering over the cracks
- Sub-Saharan Africa's 2016 & 2017 growth rates
- The Italian Dilemma: Weak banks pose risk to already faltering domestic demand
- How much money do migrants from Latin America send home?
- The U.S.' (Not So) Mysterious Case of the Missing Men
- What to expect from the G20 economies by 2020
- The Pain in Spain: Robust GDP growth cannot mask the persistent structural deficit