Editorial Feature

What to Know About Copper (Cu) Recycling

Updated by Reginald Davey 15/06/23

Recycled copper is becoming a key source of this essential industrial material as the world attempts to reduce the environmental impact of human industry. This article will explore the subject of recycled copper as well as provide an overview of copper's properties, applications, and manufacturing processes.

Copper, Cu, Recycling, recycling copper, copper recycling

Image Credit: ToRyUK/Shutterstock.com

Copper: An Overview

Copper has a long history of use. It was first used to make coins and ornaments around 8000 BC By 5500 BC copper tools were invented, and by 3000 BC copper was alloyed with tin to produce bronze, heralding the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Copper has an atomic number of 29. It has excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, which makes it an essential element for many critical industrial applications. Copper is one of the few elements that exists naturally in its pure form and is 100% recyclable.

Copper’s excellent alloying properties have made it an invaluable metal, as it can be combined with various other elements such as tin, zinc, and nickel.

Copper has a melting point of 1981oF (1083oC,) a boiling point of 4653oF (2567oC), and a density of 8.9 g/cm3.

Around 400 different copper alloys are used in various industrial applications. Copper nickel alloys are used to construct ship hulls, preventing seawater and marine life damage. Bronze is used in ship propellers and bearings, to name just a couple of applications. Brass is used in many domestic products.

Phosphor bronze, aluminum bronzes, silicon bronzes, copper nickel, nickel silvers, leaded copper, and beryllium copper also belong to the family of copper alloys. Copper salts are another form of copper, with copper sulfate being the best known and most widely used of all copper salts.

Vast copper reserves are found in many locales, with Chile, Australia, Peru, Russia, and Mexico making up the top five copper-producing regions according to a 2023 report by Statista.

Properties of Copper

Copper has many useful properties. Some of these are listed below.

  • Good corrosion resistance
  • Good electrical conductivity
  • High ductility and malleability
  • Retention of a high degree of ductility and toughness at sub-zero temperatures
  • High thermal conductivity
  • Low reactivity
  • Tough and non-magnetic
  • Anti-bacterial, lightweight, easy to alloy, and catalytic.

Manufacturing Processes 

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Raw copper ore is converted into a form ready for processing in a number of steps, which results in pure copper via crushing, grinding, leaching, and refining processes.

In electrowinning, the copper mixture is treated and transferred to an electrolytic process tank where the mixture is electrically charged, causing pure copper ions to migrate to starter cathodes made from pure copper foil.

When smelting, the melting and purifying of the copper mixture is carried out, which results in matte, blister, and 99% pure copper.

The oxide ores and tailings in the tank are leached by a weak acid solution so as to produce a weak copper sulfate solution.

Applications

Copper is an essential nutrient in the diet, helping to form red blood cells and helping reduce the risk of anemia, osteoporosis, and osteoarthritis. Some key industrial applications of copper are listed below:

  • Building construction, power generation, power transformers
  • Electronic product manufacturing
  • Copper wiring and plumbing, heating and cooling systems, telecommunications equipment
  • Bearings, connectors, brakes, and other components in automobiles

Silicon chips and microprocessors

  • Domestic appliances and kitchenware
  • Experimental plasma confinement devices
  • Lightning conductors
  • Marine aquaculture enclosures
  • Antimicrobial surfaces in hospital settings.

Recycled Copper: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Copper Use

Copper, like all natural resources, is finite. To avoid resource depletion and climate change-inducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy use associated with copper mining and virgin material processing, copper recycling has become more commonplace over the past few decades.

Copper recycling is relatively straightforward due to the metal’s 100% recyclability and recycling does not have any detrimental effect on its properties. According to copperalliance.org, between 2009 and 2018 26.7 million tonnes of copper were used globally, with around 32% coming from recycled copper.

Recycled copper can be sourced from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) such as electronic products and computers as well as copper pipes, scrap from alloy production, domestic taps, ships, automobiles, and construction waste.

Aside from recycling, reducing new products by using them for longer will also help conserve finite copper resources and reduce energy use and CO2 emissions. As well as recovering copper, recycling also drives the recovery of critical resources such as lead, zinc, and gold.

Applications of Recycled Copper

Recycled copper helps to regulate the cost of virgin copper material from rising. Recycled copper has a number of applications quite similar to virgin copper, as copper does not lose its essential properties when recycled.

When lead and tin are present in scrap copper it is useful in the production of bronzes and gun metals. Copper tube manufacturers typically use on average more than 50% of recycled copper materials in products. These are just two of the many uses of recycled copper.

Benefits of Using Recycled Copper

In brief, the benefits of using recycled copper rather than virgin materials are:

  • Reduced energy use
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reduced landfill use
  • Conservation of copper ore
  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Benefits for local economies
  • Minimized environmental toxins.

In Summary

Recycled copper has many benefits over raw resource extraction, helping to “close the loop” in several industries in line with the aims of the circular economy. However, some technical challenges do exist with recycling copper-containing waste materials.

Endeavors to support copper recycling, such as new technologies and specific regulations to facilitate end-of-life recovery are needed to move the copper industry away from a linear to a circular economy model and help to achieve net zero in line with international agreements.

More from AZoM: How Ford Otosan are Investing in Vehicle Electrification

References and Further Reading

Copper Alliance (2022) Copper Recycling [online] copperalliance.org. Available at:

https://copperalliance.org/resource/copper-recycling/

Statista (2023) Reserves of copper worldwide in 2022, by country [online] Statista.com. Available at:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/273637/copper-reserves-by-country/

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Reginald Davey

Written by

Reginald Davey

Reg Davey is a freelance copywriter and editor based in Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Writing for AZoNetwork represents the coming together of various interests and fields he has been interested and involved in over the years, including Microbiology, Biomedical Sciences, and Environmental Science.

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