Our electrical infrastructure spans the globe, lighting up every place on Earth. But it all relies on one singular metal: copper. And back in the early years of the 20th Century, many economists and engineers worried that we would run out of copper in no time.
They looked at the fast pace of our copper usage, and fretted that the world's copper reserves would quickly be outpaced by humanity's desire for an electric world.
Top image: Douglas Wheelock/International Space Station
Peak Copper Theory
80% of copper mined over the course of human history is in use right now — the copper streets lining the circuit board of your computer may be the same pieces of copper that once constructed a medieval chalice.
The rate at which humanity used copper to install electric lights and form the foundation of our current infrastructure alarmed a number of miners, engineers, and economists in the early 20th Century. In the 1924 article Copper and electricity to vanish in twenty years?, copper mining engineer Ira Joralemon said:
[T]he age of electricity and of copper will be short. At the intense rate of production that must come, the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years. [...] Our civilization based on electrical power will dwindle and die.
This belief is yet to die — copper is necessary to build the infrastructure of any country, and as we continue through the Electronic Age, developing powers like Indian and China continue to devour copper.
Should the world's copper supply run dry, electronics makers would turn to more expensive metals with similar properties, like silver (copper currently costs 24 cents per ounce, while silver hovers around $31 an ounce). Aluminum is another possible replacement for copper, but use of aluminum for electrical wiring brings about an increased chance of combustion and burning a building down.
So copper is at least somewhat irreplaceable. In that case, why is it still so cheap?
The copper economy is fragile
Yasuo Hamanaka, a Japanese businessman, sought to artificially increase the value of copper by hoarding massive quantities of the metal, and in doing so, taught the world about the delicate nuances of the world's copper supply. By the mid-1990s, Hamanaka controlled 5% of the world's copper reserves.
5% does not sound like a lot, but copper is a not a commodity that can be moved around easily due to its mass, leaving Hamanaka's control of a small percentage to send waves through the world economy. Renewed mining efforts in China along with several financial probes intp Hamanaka's actions unraveled his scheme, with Hamanaka eventually serving seven years in prison for trading violations.
Improved recovery methods
40% of the world's copper is mined in Chile, with mines holding a steady output, after a brief drop-off during 2008.
Copper is durable and lasts an extremely long time — copper plumbing can last three centuries before substantial pitting occurs from water moving through the tubes.
Copper is also extremely robust — the quality of recycled copper is extremely high, and very little mass is lost during the recycling process, allowing re-purposed copper to demand a price only a few percentage points below newly mined copper. This property of copper is essential, as it moves copper away from the category of expendable resources like petroleum and closer to the terrain of renewable resources.
A combination of an increase in known reserves since the early 1900s and the current ability to turn a profit on ore containing less than 1% copper suggest a supple future for the world's copper reserves.
The ability to easily recycle copper may one day lead to a cottage industry of industrial-scale electronics recycling, with the process turning discarded laptops, televisions, and smartphones into scraps of useful copper, much like small scale recycling schemes currently recover gold and platinum from deceased electronics. Image by jakedolan/Flickr.
In a dire situation, existing copper parts of our infrastructure could be removed and outfitted with plastic or other alternatives. Copper pipes buried underground could be replaced with PVC, while slowly oxidized, green copper roofs become black sheets of asphalt. No doubt an extreme and labor intensive undertaking, but a believable one if a profit motive exists.
Wars fought over natural resources are not unheard of — could we see the day when countries go to war over copper mines? Not a likely scenario in our lifetimes, due to increased mining and recycling possibilities, but one that makes for interesting science fiction fodder. At the very least, our ancestors' fears of a small and finite copper supply appear to have been overcome, allowing us to sleep with the lights on.