What is Copper? - Uses, Properties & Deficiency Symptoms

Instructor: Felicia Fullilove
Pennies, water pipes, and the Roman Empire all have one thing in common, and that is copper. Pennies are plated with copper, water pipes are made from a copper alloy, and the Roman Empire was known for its large amount of copper shields, jewelry, and pottery. But what is copper?

What Is Copper?

Copper is the 29th element on the periodic table and is a transition metal. It has an atomic number of 29 and atomic weight of 63.55 amu (atomic mass units). This shiny, soft metal has a number of uses, and you may be surprised to learn how important it is to your health!


Properties and Uses

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, copper, meaning 'from the island of Cyprus,' received its name based on the large amount of copper the Roman Empire acquired from Cyprus. While the Roman Empire is most famously known for using copper in cookware and coinage, the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program states that the ancient Sumerians and Chaldeans are believed to be some of the first people to make wide use of copper. Their work introduced copper mining into ancient Egyptian society, where copper was used for everything from tools to mirrors.

In its elemental form, copper is soft, shiny and highly malleable. Due to its soft nature, it is most often used as an alloy. An alloy is a material comprised of a metal and a non-metal or two metals. Alloys are typically stronger than single metal materials. Two common copper alloys are bronze and brass. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin, while brass is a mixture of copper and zinc and most popularly used in instruments, including brass instruments. Copper is also an excellent conductor of electricity, which is why it is often used in electrical wiring.

Copper is known as a coinage metal. But why is it so popular in coins? Copper is resistant to corrosion from air and water. According to the the United States Mint, the penny was made from copper or a copper alloy up until 1982. Since then, pennies have been made from 97.5% zinc and plated with copper due to its high cost. Outside of coins, instruments and jewelry, copper is used to make water pipes and fungicides. But what about the body? As you will see, copper is essential to many functions in the body.

Copper Deficiency

Copper aids in the formation of red blood cells, promotes healthy connective tissues and supports the immune system. It is also an important component of many proteins and enzymes in the human body. An enzyme is a biological molecule that helps to speed up chemical reactions in the body. It can also be called a biological catalyst.

A deficiency of copper in the body can be either inherited or acquired. However, according to the Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute, acquired copper deficiency is very uncommon. Acquired deficiency may be caused by excessive zinc intake, severe malnourishment and chronic diarrhea. Gastric surgery and disorders that affect nutrient absorption, such as Crohn's disease and celiac disease, are additional causes of copper deficiency. An abnormally low white blood cell count, anemia, abnormalities in bone development and disorders of the nervous system are common signs of copper deficiency.

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