Copper is one of the basic chemical elements. In its nearly pure state, copper is a reddish-orange metal known for its high thermal and electrical conductivity. It is commonly used to produce a wide variety of products, including electrical wire, cooking pots and pans, pipes and tubes, automobile radiators, and many others. Copper is also used as a pigment and preservative for paper, paint, textiles, and wood. It is combined with zinc to produce brass and with tin to produce bronze.

Copper was first used as early as 10,000 years ago. A copper pendant from about 8700 B.C. was found in what is now northern Iraq. There is evidence that by about 6400 B.C. copper was being melted and cast into objects in the area now known as Turkey. By 4500 B.C. , this technology was being practiced in Egypt as well. Most of the copper used before 4000 B.C. came from the random discovery of isolated outcroppings of native copper or from meteorites that had impacted Earth. The first mention of the systematic extraction of copper ore comes from about 3800 B.C. when an Egyptian reference describes mining operations on the Sinai Peninsula.

In about 3000 B.C. , large deposits of copper ore were found on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. When the Romans conquered Cyprus, they gave the metal the Latin name aes cyprium, which was often shortened to cyprium. Later this was corrupted to cuprum, from which the English word copper and the chemical symbol Cu are derived.

In South America, copper objects were being produced along the northern coast of Peru as early as 500 B.C. , and the development of copper metallurgy was well advanced by the time the Inca empire fell to the conquering Spanish soldiers in the 1500s.

In the United States, the first copper mine was opened in Branby, Connecticut, in 1705, followed by one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1732. Despite this early production, most copper used in the United States was imported from Chile until 1844, when mining of large deposits of high-grade copper ore around Lake Superior began. The development of more efficient processing techniques in the late-1800s allowed the mining of lower-grade copper ores from huge open-pit mines in the western United States.

Today, the United States and Chile are the world's top two copper producing countries, followed by Russia, Canada, and China.

Raw Materials

Pure copper is rarely found in nature, but is usually combined with other chemicals in the form of copper ores. There are about 15 copper ores mined commercially in 40 countries around the world. The most common are known as sulfide ores in which the copper is chemically bonded with sulfur. Others are known as oxide ores, carbonate ores, or mixed ores depending on the chemicals present. Many copper ores also contain significant quantities of gold, silver, nickel, and other valuable metals, as well as large quantities of commercially useless material. Most of the copper ores mined in the United States contain only about 1.2-1.6% copper by weight.

The most common sulfide ore is chalcopyrite, CuFeS 2 , also known as copper pyrite or yellow copper ore. Chalcocite, Cu 2 S, is another sulfide ore.

Cuprite, or red copper ore, Cu 2 O, is an oxide ore. Malachite, or green copper ore, Cu(OH) 2 •CuCO 3 , is an important carbonate ore, as is azurite, or blue copper carbonate, Cu(OH) 2 •2CuCO 3 .

Other ores include tennantite, boronite, chrysocolla, and atacamite.

In addition to the ores themselves, several other chemicals are often used to process and refine copper. These include sulfuric acid, oxygen, iron, silica, and various organic compounds, depending on the process used.

The Manufacturing

The process of extracting copper from copper ore varies according to the type of ore and the desired purity of the final product. Each process consists of several steps in which unwanted materials are physically or chemically removed, and the concentration of copper is progressively increased. Some of these steps are conducted at the mine site itself, while others may be conducted at separate facilities.

Here are the steps used to process the sulfide ores commonly found in the western United States.



The copper ore usually contains a large amount of dirt, clay, and a variety of non-copper bearing minerals. The first step is to remove some of this waste material. This process is called concentrating and is usually done by the flotation method.

The process of extracting copper from copper ore varies according to the type of ore and the desired purity of the final product. Each process consists of several steps in which unwanted materials are physically or chemically removed, and the concentration of copper is progressively increased.
The process of extracting copper from copper ore varies according to the type of ore and the desired purity of the final product. Each process consists of several steps in which unwanted materials are physically or chemically removed, and the concentration of copper is progressively increased.


Once the waste materials have been physically removed from the ore, the remaining copper concentrate must undergo several chemical reactions to remove the iron and sulfur. This process is called smelting and traditionally involves two furnaces as described below. Some modern plants utilize a single furnace, which combines both operations.


Even though copper blister is 99% pure copper, it still contains high enough levels of sulfur, oxygen, and other impurities to hamper further refining. To remove or adjust the levels of these materials, the blister copper is first fire refined before it is sent to the final electrorefining process.


Quality Control

Because electrical applications require a very low level of impurities, copper is one of the few common metals that are refined to almost 100% purity. The process described above has been proven to produce copper of very high purity. To ensure this purity, samples are analyzed at various steps to determine whether any adjustment to the process is required.


The recovery of sulfuric acid from the copper smelting process not only provides a profitable byproduct, but also significantly reduces the air pollution caused by the furnace exhaust. Gold, silver, and other precious metals are also important byproducts.

Waste products include the overburden from the mining operation, the tailings from the concentrating operation, and the slag from the smelting operation. This waste may contain significant concentrations of arsenic, lead, and other chemicals, which pose a potential health hazard to the surrounding area. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the storage of such wastes and the remediation of the area once mining and processing operations have ceased. The sheer volume of the material involved—in some cases, billions of tons of waste—makes this a formidable task, but it also presents some potentially profitable opportunities to recover the useable materials contained in this waste.

The Future

Demand for copper is expected to remain high, especially in the electrical and electronics industries. The current trends in copper processing are towards methods and equipment that use less energy and produce less air pollution and solid waste. In the United States, this is a difficult assignment because of the stringent environmental controls and the very low-concentration copper ores that are available. In some cases, the production costs may increase significantly.

One encouraging trend is the increased use of recycled copper. Currently over half the copper being produced in the United States comes from recycled copper. Fifty-five percent of the recycled copper comes from copper machining operations, such as screw forming, and 45% comes from the recovery of used copper products, such as electrical wire and automobile radiators. The percentage of recycled copper is expected to grow as the costs of new copper processing increase.

Where to Learn More


Brady, George S., Henry R. Clauser, and John A. Vaccari. Materials Handbook. McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Heiserman, David L. Exploring Chemical Elements and Their Compounds. TAB Books, 1992.

Hombostel, Caleb. Construction Materials. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1991.

Kroschwitz, Jacqueline I. and Mary Howe-Grant, ed. Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1993.

Stwertka, Albert. A Guide to the Elements. Oxford University Press, 1996.


Baum, Dan and Margaret L. Knox. "We want people who have a problem with mine wastes to think of Butte." Smithsonian (November 1992): 46-52, 54-57.

Shimada, Izumi and John F. Merkel. "Copper-Alloy Metallurgy in Ancient Peru." Scientific American (July 1991): 80-86.

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Chris Cavette

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