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Common Uses of Copper: A Versatile Metal

Copper (HG) consistently holds a position among the world's top ten most traded commodities and is more widely produced than gold or silver, which contributes to its wide use within a number of industries.

After iron and aluminum, copper ranks as the third most consumed industrial metal worldwide, making it a significant player in global markets. In financial markets, copper futures are commonly traded, with the symbol 'HG' representing these contracts.

This raises the question: what factors contribute to the high demand for copper and the robust liquidity of its market, attracting traders?

Following an exploration of this base metal and its valuable characteristics, we’ll delve into its common uses and identify the key markets that can drive copper demand.

An illustration of copper bar prices.

What Is Copper?

Copper, with its distinctive reddish hue, stands out as one of the most versatile metals, prized for its remarkable conductivity in electricity and heat. It exists in the earth’s crust and is extracted through mining.

Due to its soft and malleable properties, pure copper can be easily molded. It’s also highly corrosion-resistant, has antimicrobial properties and high thermal conductivity, and is pressure-resistant too.

Furthermore, copper is frequently chosen over silver as an electrical conductor because of its abundance and affordability.

Where Can I Find Copper?

In 2022, the biggest copper mining countries were Chile, Peru, China, The Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States, Russia, and Indonesia. Australia also has large, untapped copper reserves.

Copper is also a highly recyclable metal, with around 8.7 million tonnes of copper recycled annually from both end-of-life products and manufacturing scrap. Over the last decade, recycled sources have contributed approximately 32 percent of annual copper usage.

Common Uses for Copper: What Is Copper Used For?

Due to its unique combination of high ductility, malleability, thermal and electrical conductivity, and resistance to corrosion, copper is considered a significant industrial metal, which, as of February 2024, ranks third in quantities consumed after iron and aluminum.

Its nickname, "Dr. Copper," was earned due to the base metal's sensitivity to economic shifts, stemming from its extensive industrial applications across various sectors, which render its demand and market price reliable indicators of economic health.

Copper plays a vital role in diverse sectors, including building construction, power generation, electronics manufacturing, and transportation. Plus, it serves as the backbone of electrical wiring and plumbing systems crucial for daily operations in residential and commercial settings.

It has a multitude of applications across various industries, showcasing its ubiquity. For example, copper is even commonly used on high-touch surfaces in hospitals, such as doorknobs, because of its antimicrobial properties.

What Drives Copper Demand?

Building Construction

More than 40% of all copper produced is used by the construction and infrastructure industries. Whether it's your home, school, commercial structure, or industrial site, copper is prevalent in the infrastructure of all types of buildings.

Moreover, copper is used in roofing due to its wind resistance, aesthetic appeal, and sustainable attributes. In residential heating and water systems, for example, copper tubing is preferred for its thermal conductivity and inherent antimicrobial properties.

Electricity

Copper wiring plays a critical role in the generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption of electricity. Due to its ability to conduct electricity and its flexibility, copper ensures the reliability of electric grids.

It’s also used in fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation and is essential in renewable energies such as solar power and wind farms. It’s estimated that an average solar photovoltaic farm requires 9,000 pounds of copper per megawatt of energy produced and that the average wind farm contains between 4-15 million pounds of copper.

One of the main drivers for copper demand is industrial growth, especially in developing countries where new energy infrastructure is being rolled out. Due to its thermal and electrical conductivity, copper is considered to be a crucial industrial metal. Traders often speculate on industrial growth when trading copper.

Electronic Products and Appliances

Almost every electrical device you have, from air conditioners and refrigerators to televisions and smartphones, contains electrical wiring and printed circuit boards that use copper. It’s estimated that the typical iPhone contains up to 15 grams of copper.

The widespread integration of these products into our daily lives directly correlates with household incomes, fueling the demand for such items and, consequently, for copper.

Transportation Equipment

The majority of transportation equipment relies heavily on copper material. For example, a Boeing 747-200 airplane is estimated to contain 632,000 feet of copper wire. Copper is also used in fossil fuel cars in the battery, the wiring, and the radiator, and as an anti-corrosive metal in brake tubing. The average luxury car is estimated to have 5,249 feet of copper wiring.

Unlike palladium, which is essential for traditional fossil fuel vehicles but not in electric vehicles (EVs), the new EVs that are set to transform the automotive market require copper for their wiring, batteries, voltage transition, and motors. It’s estimated that an EV uses around 368 kilograms of copper. That’s two to four times as much as in a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Therefore, the growth of the automotive industry and the transition to EVs are important factors for traders to monitor, as they can influence copper demand.

Jewelry and Coinage

Other significant uses of copper are in jewelry and coinage. An 18K gold piece of jewelry not only consists of up to 75% gold but may also include up to 15% silver and 10% copper material. The addition of copper strengthens the jewelry and makes it more affordable.

Many modern coins are also made from a durable copper-nickel alloy that doesn’t tarnish and has antimicrobial elements. This means more coins can stay in circulation longer and are safer to handle. The copper-nickel has a specific electronic signature that helps coin machines identify real coins versus imitations.

The costs of various metals can influence the composition of coins made by mints, which can, in turn, affect the copper market.

Copper Uses Drive Market Demand

The multitude of copper applications is the main driver of demand for the commodity and determines whether copper demand will increase. Traders often speculate based on expected imbalances between supply and demand.

While demand for copper is widespread, the largest demand currently originates from China, which accounted for 55% of global copper ore imports in 2022. Additionally, industrialized nations such as Japan, the United States, Germany, and Spain also represent significant consumers of copper.

Because copper is so widely used, the strength of the copper market can be a good barometer for the overall strength of the global economy, but this can make it difficult to isolate specific trends.

Nevertheless, experts agree that the biggest influences on copper prices are demand from emerging markets, housing in wealthy countries, supply disruptions, and substitutions where copper is replaced with another commodity in a major industrial application.

Copper Uses In Conclusion: Key Insights for Traders

The versatility and indispensability of copper across numerous industries highlights its status as a critical industrial metal.

From its pivotal role in construction and electricity to its ubiquitous presence in electronic devices, transportation equipment, and even coinage, copper's diverse applications fuel global demand and drive market dynamics.

Its widespread use not only reflects economic growth but also poses challenges in tracking specific trends due to its broad influence.

As traders navigate the complexities of the copper market, understanding the dynamic relationship between supply and demand remains crucial for informed decision-making and effective trading strategies.

FAQs

Why is copper used in electrical wiring?

Copper is used in electrical wiring because it is the second most conductive metal after silver. However, because copper is much more abundant than silver, it is less expensive and preferred over silver to make production more affordable.

How does the price of copper impact various industries?

When the price of copper rises, the input cost for many industries also rises. This can lead to decreased profits for companies and increased prices for consumers.

What are some alternative materials to copper in certain applications?

Copper’s closest substitution is aluminum, which is also lightweight, making it viable for nanotechnological miniaturization. However, many experimental alternatives have not proven advanced enough to substitute for copper, so there is a focus on developing methods to use copper more efficiently.

How does the demand for copper correlate with global economic trends?

Copper is often called "Dr. Copper" due to its sensitivity to economic shifts.

Consequently, monitoring copper prices and demand offers insights into broader economic trends, with factors such as industrial growth, housing markets, and supply disruptions influencing copper prices.

What are the primary factors driving the high demand for copper?

Copper's high demand and market liquidity stem from its diverse industrial applications, including its conductivity in electricity and heat, corrosion resistance, and antimicrobial properties. Its affordability compared to other metals like gold and silver further contributes to its widespread use across various sectors, ensuring robust market activity.

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