It's a lean, green, killing machine—except when it hasn't oxidized, in which case it's a lean, red, killing machine.
Copper, the common element routinely used in the production of plumbing systems and electrical wiring, is a proven antimicrobial agent. Tarnished or not, copper, brass and bronze surfaces have been shown to kill most harmful bacteria—from antibiotic-resistant superbug staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to the food-poisoning E. coli strains—within hours of contact. Scientists don't know exactly why uncoated copper and copper alloys have germ-fighting superpowers, but with the fear of a global pandemic following this summer's swine flu outbreak, they don't care as long as it works.
Copper's bacteria-blasting properties are as inherent to the metal as thermal and electrical conductivity and have been used, though not always understood, by humans since ancient times. Ancient Egyptians used copper vessels to sterilize drinking water, according to the New York-based Copper Development Association (CDA), while healers throughout the ages have recommended the red metal in treatments to cure everything from intestinal worms to varicose veins.
But while copper's antimicrobial properties have been employed in health care for centuries, only in recent times have copper producers got the go-ahead to tout the metal's germ-busting nature. In March 2008, following extensive testing of 3,000 copper alloy samples, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared copper alloys an antimicrobial agent, a classification once granted only to liquids, gases and aerosols used as sanitizers and disinfectants. In the year and a half since then, copper users coast to coast have filed "me-too" registrations with the EPA to have their products declared antimicrobial, while scientists have bustled to confirm the efficacy of copper in various germ-filled settings.
The buzz around antimicrobial copper is louder than ever, but with research on the topic still relatively young, players in the copper industry can't help but wonder What does all this mean for future copper demand?
A lot, according to copper producers around the world. For a metal that has mostly been losing market share in recent years to cheaper and lighter-weight aluminum and plastic, the possibility for new applications is nothing short of exciting.
"This new application for copper products has the potential to have a material positive impact on copper demand in the future," said a spokeswoman from Xstrata Copper. "It remains too early to speculate on the long-term impact of this discovery, although it has the potential to be significant."
Carmen Tardito, director of market strategy and development at state-owned Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco), agreed that the implications for copper usage could be staggering. "Early predictions indicate that a market for antibacterial copper applications in hospitals and health centers in the United States could potentially reach 300,000 tons a year at peak consumption, a figure that could reach 3 million tons a year at peak consumption worldwide," she said.
Global copper consumption totaled 18 million tonnes last year, according to preliminary data from the International Copper Study Group, so by Tardito's calculations the growth of antimicrobial applications for copper could expand global copper demand by around 16 percent.
With so much potential growth at stake, producers are working to stay well informed of developments in the field. Among the ranks of CDA members are Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott Utah Copper Corp., Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., BHP Billiton, Codelco and Xstrata. In fact, Charlie Sartain, Xstrata's chief executive officer, is currently vice chairman of the CDA's affiliate organization, the International Copper Association (ICA) and ICA's Board will vote to elect Sartain chairman in October.
Yet despite their interest in new developments, as long as the movement remains in the early stages many miners are unsure what to expect from this relatively new application.
"Since we don't produce any 'final' product to be used in an antimicrobial environment, the impact to Kennecott will be at least one step removed, maybe two steps removed, so it is hard to predict," a Kennecott spokeswoman said. "(This) will likely not create an immediate or dramatic increase in demand. However, we do hope for that to grow over time as there are true public health benefits."
The Xstrata spokeswoman agreed. "Given the relative recency of these studies, it is too early to say how large the impact is likely to be as this will depend on how exactly copper is applied as well as the extent of uptake globally," she said, noting that some of the demand will depend on whether fabricators choose to use solid copper in new applications or simply apply a thin copper coating over cheaper materials to take advantage of the same antimicrobial effect.
But no matter what the outcome might be, producers say they are excited to see their market grow—and contribute to human health to boot.
"As a result of the swine flu pandemic, it has been stressed extensively in the mass media the need to rigorously wash one's hands, since touching contaminated surfaces is one of the main ways micro-organisms are transported," Tardito said. "The use of copper on contact surfaces such as hand railings, arm rests, faucets, light switches, chairs, etc., in places of high human concentration would undoubtedly help significantly reduce the spread of pathogenic micro-organisms and, hence, slow the spread of illness."
Kettering agreed. "We do hope for (this application) to grow over time, as there are true public health benefits." ANNE RILEY