Post-COVID: A Copper-Plated World

I was in Santiago, Chile, last year — before the global lockdown. It seems so long ago.

I had to get from one part of town to another. “Best is just to take the subway,” said the hotel concierge. So I walked down the street and found the subway entrance. Descending the stairs, something caught my eye…

Copper handrail

Copper handrail on stairs leading to Santiago subway.

The handrails on the stairs to the subway were made of heavy-gauge copper.

I looked around. All the handrails were copper. On the subway, there was more copper. Copper all over the place. Railings, grips, doorknobs, light fixtures… copper.

It’s unlike most transit systems in the U.S., where you usually see stainless steel. But it makes sense, I thought… Chile is a big copper-mining nation, so they use local materials in the subway.

It turns out, however, that it was just part of the story. The full explanation has a very real health angle for you, as well as a promising financial aspect.

And it’s all centered around… coronavirus.

No doubt, you’ve paid attention to coronavirus news over the past couple of months.

You’ve likely heard warnings about how not to get infected. Wash your hands, of course. Wear latex gloves when you’re out and about, if possible. Beware touching doorknobs, elevator buttons or escalator handgrips. Watch out for gasoline pump handles. Be careful even about picking up boxes at the store.

You get the picture…

Point is, coronavirus is a tough bug. It’s resilient. It endures for quite a while on most surfaces. According to some research, coronavirus can remain active on surfaces like steel, glass, plastic and even cardboard for several days. Ugh…

Then there’s copper.

Copper is already well-known as an antimicrobial metal. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “uncoated copper alloy surfaces kill over 99.9% of the following bacteria within 2 hours of exposure: MRSA, VRE, Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacter aerogenes, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli O157:H7.”1

So far, so good. And that’s just what the EPA has tested, meaning there’s a library of data on copper’s utility from pre-coronavirus days.

Copper has these “healthful” properties because of its atomic structure. The electrons around a copper nucleus give the red metal an extra kick of virus-killing power, according to Bill Keevil, a British microbiologist.2

A copper atom has a free electron in its outer orbital shell, like you see in this schematic model:

Copper electron shell

Copper electron shell. Note electron (#1) in outer shell.3

This outer electron is available for what are called “oxidation-reduction reactions.” Not to get too technical, but it’s why copper usually quickly develops a green patina (such as you see on copper downspouts or the Statue of Liberty). The outer electron is also why copper is such a good electrical conductor.

Copper’s electron structure makes the metal lethal to viruses, too. When a virus or bacteria lands on copper, that outer electron essentially “blasts” the bug. In terms of physics, the electron disrupts the electrochemistry of the outer surface of the virus.

Research is ongoing. Still, from what people know, the outer electron of copper prevents the equivalent of “respiration” within the virus. In other words, the virus shell picks up an electrical charge from copper that blocks normal function. It’s like saying that the copper electron “chokes” the virus.

The copper electron also serves kind of like a can opener, breaking up the cell membrane or viral coating. Just like the copper wire in your house, the copper outer electron channels energy – and electric charge – directly into the virus or bacteria. This extra energy creates free radicals that accelerate the breakdown of the overall molecule or cell. It’s especially effective on dry surfaces.

Bottom line is that the outer copper electron is like a “seek and destroy” missile against the RNA and DNA inside a virus or bacteria. The process works relatively fast, which is beneficial because it allows little time for additional mutations within the virus that could otherwise create drug-resistant superbugs.

Even better, the electrical properties of copper never wear out. Copper might tarnish, but the fundamental electrical properties remain.

Now, let’s look at some practicalities in all of this…

Several years ago in Britain, the National Health Service sponsored trials that involved replacing stainless steel items inside hospitals and clinics with copper. Early results indicated a reduction of “health care-associated infection” (HAI) in the range of over 50%.

More recently, the University of York developed a test-model for replacing steel with copper. Early feedback is that a 20-bed intensive care unit (ICU) will pay back the cost of equipping “touch surfaces” with copper in one year​.

Another study, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, found that ICU hospital beds made from copper “harbored an average of 95% fewer bacteria than conventional hospital beds and maintained these low-risk levels throughout patients’ stay in hospital.”4

Meanwhile, many U.S. hospitals have begun to use “copper-infused” linens and patient gowns to reduce the incidence of HAIs.5

The Wall Street Journal lauded Sentara Healthcare, of Norfolk, Va., for experimenting with copper to fight superbugs. It “invested in copper surfaces for countertops and bed rails, bed tables and other furniture. Sentara also started using copper-infused linens, including patient gowns, bed sheets, towels and washcloths.”6

The hospital recorded “dramatic reductions” in patient infections, based on using copper.

And what about the current medical issue, with coronavirus?

In a recent Australian study, researchers applied coronavirus samples to a copper surface. They found that “96% of (coronavirus) was killed off in two hours and 99.2% in 5 hours, compared to no change on stainless steel surfaces over the same period.”7

That’s great!

Clearly, there’s good research about the efficacy of copper in fighting not just coronavirus, but many other viruses and bacteria.

Another way of looking at it is that there’s a demonstrable, measurable level of risk-reduction that comes with using copper to kill off bugs. In this regard, the legal, financial and insurance angles will likely lean towards using more and more copper in medical environments over the years to come.

You can expect that copper will be used more and more in the world post-COVID.

Now, let’s figure out where all that metal will come from…

Chile and Peru are among the world’s largest copper mining countries, with a multitude of mining plays. I discussed Peruvian copper mining last July, explaining that it’s where China obtains a large fraction of its copper imports.

Of course, there’s also a lot of copper to be found in a large country like the U.S. In Colonial days, people mined copper in Maine, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As the country developed and moved west, there were many more copper discoveries, from Michigan to Montana to California.

Today, the big U.S. copper mines are in Arizona and Utah, with smaller operations across the landscape. Still, the U.S. imports most of the copper it uses.

The good news, from my perspective and for Whiskey readers, is the large number of  strong “junior” firms in the copper exploration and development business in the U.S., as well as adjacent in Canada and Mexico.

Just in the past year or so, I’ve visited copper exploration and development sites in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico’s Sonora. I’ve seen great geology and mineral assets, along with outstanding technical and management teams with impressive pedigrees.

For example, Alaska’s Trilogy Metals is partnered with Australian mining giant South 32. Yukon’s Western Copper and Gold is being courted by a number of large names. Arizona’s newest copper producer is Excelsior Mining, with a superb project up and running, just southeast of Tucson. And Riverside Resources is the go-to Mexican exploration partner for giant BHP Group.

I’ve also looked at a couple of impressive up and comers in Montana. One small play is already partnered with giant Rio Tinto. North of Yellowstone Park, and on the same volcanic and structural trends, they’re searching for the “next Butte,” which is geologist-talk for a gigantic, world-class copper deposit.

Another small Montana play is working in the rugged Beartooth Mountains, along with a substantial South African mining giant. In what’s known as the “Stillwater District,” they’re beginning to uncover what appears to be a game-changing copper ore deposit, along with eye-watering amounts of nickel, gold, platinum and palladium.

All in all, I’m optimistic about the copper space. Across the world, many older mines are coming to the end of their useful life. We’re looking ahead to future tight supplies, meaning higher prices and plenty of incentive for good ideas to come to fruition.

Meanwhile, expect already-strong copper demand to continue, along with more and more new uses. Many people are already aware of the looming increase in copper demand coming from the electric car side of industry.

Now in the age of coronavirus, we have a wide-open new demand landscape for medical uses. Indeed, that entire angle has barely begun to break the surface.

In Chile, not long ago the country’s minister of mines discussed breakthroughs in using copper-based filters for face masks. The idea is to apply a copper film onto the mask filter, which will kill off a significant number of airborne virus molecules. It reduces the “viral load” in every breath of air that the user takes.

This copper-coated filter idea is novel. It’s based on a fast-evolving manufacturing technique called 3D printing, which permits ultra-thin copper coatings to be applied quickly, in low amounts but still taking advantage of copper’s antimicrobial properties.

Closer to home, the CEO of U.S. copper mining giant Freeport McMoRan, Richard Adkerson, recently told a conference call that “Copper’s use in health care equipment and facilities and in public places will undoubtedly grow significantly when the cost of copper, which has been a barrier in the past, is measured by the enormous cost to society that is being brought on by this pandemic.”

So here’s the prediction: copper will soon begin to replace “touch surfaces” anywhere and everywhere, certainly in medical applications but in many others as well.

We’re looking at a copper-plated world… And it can’t happen soon enough.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 CDA Position Statement on Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic, Copper Development Association Inc.

2 Copper’s Virus-Killing Powers Were Known Even to the Ancients, Smithsonian Magazine

3 Copper: Orbital and Bonding Info, Rader’s Chem 4 Kids

4 Copper Hospital Beds Harbour 95% Fewer Bacteria Than Conventional Hospital Beds, Med Brief Namibia

5 Copper Infused Linens Now Being Used in Effort to Reduce Infections at Hospital, The Gazette Virginian

6 Hospitals Step Up the War on Superbugs, The Wall Street Journal

7 Copper Takes Aim at COVID-19 With Virus-Killer Coatings, Reuters

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