Copper is likely to continue its rise as the Chinese ban on scrap metal and economic reforms continue to boost demand for the metal. Mexico produced 766,000 tons of copper in 2016, a 28.9 percent increase in comparison to the 593,000 tons that was produced in 2015, thanks mainly to the consolidation of two Grupo México plants. Globally, Mexico was the 10th largest producer of copper.
Following Grupo México’s US$4.5 billion expansion of Buenavista del Cobre, the asset is now the fourth-largest copper mine in the world by capacity, with a lifespan of around 80 years. Nautilus Minerals estimates that by 2040, copper world production will begin to decline as underground supply is depleted. The red metal is now intertwined in most activities of human lives, driving its value for civilization. Fortunately, copper is highly recyclable, but collection practices and cooperation are needed to ensure the future of the metal’s availability. But why is copper so important to modern civilization?
COPPER THROUGH THE AGES
Copper’s malleability allowed our ancestors to craft the first weapons and tools used by mankind around 10,000 years ago. These in turn gave rise to the first agricultural practices that enabled civilization as we know it today. As more alloys were discovered, the use of copper in rudimentary hardware fell out of common use. Humanity transitioned from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age as this new metal displaced the former in cultural use and importance. Nevertheless, copper has again positioned itself as a fundamental enabler of today’s civilization. As human activities developed in complexity, so did the applications of the red metal.
Copper is the only metal with a non-silver color aside from gold. Due to its unique appearance and malleability, it’s not rare to find it in artistic representations. While many artists find its use visually appealing in displays, its presence is often concealed inside our electronic devices. Though heavily used in construction and infrastructure, 65 percent of all copper production is destined to electrical applications. For instance, electric vehicles contain around 25kg of copper, a laptop’s wiring contains around 0.7kg while the average smartphones require around 16g for its printed circuit boards and microchips.
Silver is the best electrical conductor because it offers less resistivity to free electron movement. A lower resistivity means that the electrons making an electric charge flow more freely through a material. But hot on the heels of silver is copper.
Even though silver is better at conducting electricity than any other material, it is also 100 times more expensive than copper, making mass purchase of the metal for large applications unfeasible. When exposed to the elements, metals undergo chemical reactions. Rust and tarnish decrease the electric conductivity of metals, but copper offers high resistance to corrosion. While gold ranks as the world’s third best conductor, its molecular structure makes it highly susceptible to high temperatures. If it were not for the price, gold would still not be practical in wiring because the heat resulting from an electron transfer would melt it.
IBM introduced copper to computer chips in 1997. Technological developments now allow for 900 million transistors to be packed into a single chip. Companies often want to use the best conductors because they allow for machines to deliver faster operating speeds. Better conductivity also helps them comply with emerging environmental goals as lower resistance requires less energy to move electrons through a material.
LESS HEAT, MORE ENERGY
A material’s resistance is directly proportional to the heat produced as a byproduct of electrical current flow. This is the operating principle behind incandescent light bulbs, where a filament is heated to the point it glows. Copper’s thermal conductivity is 60 percent higher than aluminum, but contrary to belief, this does not imply that copper heats more easily. Rather, it can move heat faster. This is a desirable property of copper in electronics because as heat is removed from an electronic device, it will operate more efficiently aside from reducing physical strain and exposure to damage from high temperatures.
In an interview with Mexico Infrastructure & Sustainability Review, Ramón García, General Manager of Vertiv Mexico, pointed out how energy-related costs represent one of the main expenses for data centers. “Data centers have a noteworthy impact on the environment as they require copious quantities of energy to both function and remain thermally-conditioned to prevent breakdowns,” he says.
As Mexican companies digitize their databases and operations, the creation of more data centers will be required to enable the growth of IoT and Big Data. Twisted copper cables are widely used in telecommunications to distribute information. Even though copper wiring in telecom infrastructure may soon be replaced by optic fiber due to its greater transmission speed and capacity, and despite the boom of wireless technology, most electronic hardware still depends on copper.
COPPER’S GOLDEN AGE
According to Statista, approximately 19,700 million metric tons of copper were mined in 2017. A solid growth in production since 2005 can only be attributed to growing demand. Data shows that 97 percent of all copper ever mined has been extracted since 1900 and thanks to its recyclability, 80 percent of copper ever mined is still in use today.
There is a need for copper in the new data applications that are meant to improve a population’s quality of life. “By 2050, the planet will hold 9 billion people and an equally inflated middle class ready to consume. We are expecting the next 500 million people to be removed from poverty in the next 10 years, and these numbers imply a large need for minerals and metals to build houses, cars and electrical devices. In 24 years, we will need to double the amount of copper that is produced now,” said Luc Paquet, President of diamond drilling company Fordia, in an interview with Mexico Mining Review.