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Copper has been used for many centuries; it has a very high thermal and electrical conductivity and is relatively corrosion resistant. Used copper can be recycled without loss of quality. These properties mean that copper is used in diverse sectors such as electrical engineering, automobiles, construction, plumbing, machinery, shipbuilding, aircraft, and precision instruments. Copper is frequently alloyed with Zn, Sn, Ni, Al and other metals to make a range of brasses and bronzes [tm 36, Panorama 1997]. Copper production is based on grade A copper cathodes i.e. 99.95% Cu. The grade A designation comes from the London Metal Exchange vocabulary for cathodes and refers to a British Standard. This has been replaced recently by a European CEN Standard - EN 1978, where the quality is designated as Cu CATH1 or in the new European alphanumeric system CR001A.

The maximum tolerable impurities in% are as follows:

  • Ag 0.0025 - As 0.0005 - Bi 0.00020 - Fe 0.0010 - Pb 0.0005 - S 0.0015 - Sb 0.0004 – Se 0.00020
  • Te 0.00020 with As+Cd+Cr+Mn+P+Sb 0.0015
  • Bi+Se+Te 0.0003
  • Se+Te 0.0003
  • Ag+As+Bi+Cd+Co+Cr+Fe+Mn+Ni+P+Pb+S+Sb+Se+Si+Sn+Te+Zn 0.0065

Sources of materials

Refined copper is produced from primary and secondary raw materials by a relatively small number of copper refineries; their product is copper cathode. This is melted, alloyed and further processed to produce rods, profiles, wires, sheets, strips, tubes, etc. This step may be integrated with the refinery but is frequently carried out at another site. About 55% of the feed supplies to the copper refineries are purchased on the international market in the form of copper concentrates, blister, anodes or scrap. The remaining 45% come from domestic copper concentrates as well as domestic copper bearing residue or scrap. The EU possesses few primary copper resources, but its copper metallurgical activities are highly significant. Sizeable copper mine production can only be found in Portugal (start-up of mining at Neves Corvo in 1989, 106500 tonnes of copper in 1997) and in Sweden (86600 tonnes). With about 239000 tonnes of copper extracted from domestic ores in 1997, the EU accounts for around 2% of the total worldwide copper mine output. Refining and semis manufacturing capabilities have developed in line with the requirements of its large consumption, using imported primary raw materials and domestic as well as imported scrap. Access to primary supplies has become increasingly difficult over the past few years, as copper mining countries have developed their own refining facilities close to their mines, thereby reducing raw materials availability on the international market. Recycling constitutes an important component of the raw material supplies to the copper refining and manufacturing facilities. Altogether, secondary raw materials account for about 45% of the use of copper and it’s alloys in Europe, either by refineries as the whole or part of their feed or by the semis manufacturers directly.

The quality of secondary raw materials varies greatly and many sources of these materials are not suitable for direct use by the Semis manufacturers. The scrap industry is relied upon to provide graded material of adequate cleanliness for the Industry and although there are agreed specifications for scrap, wide variations are encountered. Additional treatment or abatement systems may be needed.

Production and consumption

Annual production of copper cathode at the time of writing is 959000 tonnes from primary sources and 896000 tonnes from secondary sources. Beryllium is not produced in EU and is not thought to be present in sufficient amounts in scrap to present any environmental issues. Three of the secondary smelters and nearly all of the primary smelters have increased their production output. This significant increase in production capacity has been made simultaneously with environmental improvements. Computer scrap and printed circuit boards are becoming more common secondary sources even though the copper content is low. The scrap is pre-treated by both the scrap industry and by some smelters. This provides an outlet for these materials. Recycling is at a high level as copper can be reprocessed without loss of its intrinsic properties and many secondary materials are available. EU copper refining activity has been able to grow primarily by securing raw materials on the international market and making use of copper or brass scrap and residues generated by consumers and processors. EU copper semis manufacturers have an output that is three times that of EU refinery output. They use the international market to secure adequate volumes of supplies of copper and brass, together with alloying materials (mainly zinc, tin and nickel). This part of the industry is a net exporter of about 500000 tonnes per year.

Worldwide copper production.jpg

Production of copper.jpg

Production sites

There are ten major refineries in the EU. Five use primary and secondary raw materials and the others use secondary raw materials only. It is estimated that the copper refining industry employed more than 7500 people in 1997. Three companies have capacities of over 250000 tonnes refined copper cathode per year capacity: Atlantic Copper (E), Union Minière (B) and Norddeutsche Affinerie (D). Four others, MKM Hettstedt (D), Hüttenwerke Kayser (D), Boliden (SW) and Outokumpu (FIN), each produce more than 100000 tonnes per year. Production capacity at the other facilities in Italy, Spain, Austria, the United Kingdom and Belgium range between 35000 and 100000 tonnes of copper cathode per year. There are many more companies in the Semis manufacturing industry. They use refined copper and high quality secondary raw materials as feed materials. About 100 companies are involved throughout the EU, employing some 40000 people. The industry can suffer from over-capacity and is vulnerable to cyclical movements in demand. EU copper demand follows the slow growth pattern of a mature market. The electrical wire-rod sector accounts for around half of semis production. Some 20 companies, employing around 3000 people, are involved in this sector. A significant part of this activity is attached to the cable sector as an integrated upstream input source (Alcatel, Pirelli, BICC etc.) whilst another part is attached to the refinery sector as integrated downstream output (Deutsche Giessdraht, Norddeutsche Affinerie, Union Minière, Atlantic Copper etc.). There are many more companies in the other copper semis manufacturing industry, producing copper and copper alloys rods, bars, wires, sections, tubes, plates, sheet and strip: about 80 companies are involved throughout the EU, employing some 35000 people. The industry is however dominated by three large groups: KME-Europa Metal (D), with major manufacturing activities in France, Germany, Italy and Spain; Outokumpu (FIN) in Finland, Sweden, Netherlands and Spain; and Wieland Werke (D) in Germany and UK. Other major independent companies include Boliden (S), with plants in Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, Carlo Gnutti (I), and IMI (UK). There has been considerable rationalisation of and subsequent investment in the copper industry in Europe over the past two decades. This has been in response to the creation of the single market in the EU and economic pressures, such as increased energy costs, the need for substantial investment in pollution abatement and frequent changes in exchange rates.

European production sites.jpg

Copper semis production.jpg

Source: BAT for the Surface Treatment of Metals & Plastics, 2006

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