Copper's Newest Job: Germ Fighter
NEW YORK—A study that showed copper kills bacteria on contact points to an expansion of possible uses for the industrial metal, which is already found in a range of products.
The prospect of hospitals around the world installing copper surfaces, amid other applications of the metal, have copper producers predicting an increase in demand.
However, efforts to use more copper in medical environments are still largely in the research stage, and it's unclear whether a significant increase in consumption of the metal will result.
"Certainly, it's one of several potential sources of demand growth for copper over the next few years," said Nicholas Snowdon, a base-metals analyst with Barclays Capital. "It's something that's been on the radar for some time, but it's still not known what degree of uptake there's going to be."
Concerns about demand for copper have driven futures prices for much of this year. Strong demand from China, the world's No. 1 consumer of the metal, helped futures traded in New York settle above $4.60 a pound in February, an all-time high, while concern that the euro zone's debt crisis would cause a global economic slowdown sent prices to just above $3 Thursday. On Friday, copper for October delivery settled at $3.2190, up 5.4%.
The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, found copper surfaces in rooms in intensive-care units cut the amount of bacteria in the rooms by 97% and reduced the rate of hospital-acquired infections by 41%. The copper was tested on a variety of bacteria, including a strain of E. coli and MRSA, a type of staph bacteria that can be difficult to treat.
"If this research translates…we could potentially cut the cost of hospital-acquired infections," said Dr. Michael Schmidt, vice chairman of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, who led the study.
Approximately one out of every 20 hospitalized patients will contract an infection related to their health care while in the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Schmidt said copper's superior ability to conduct electricity is what helps the metal prevent the spread of germs. All living things generate electricity, and when bacteria come in contact with a copper surface, the metal siphons off their electrons, leaving them without energy, he said.
The metal does this naturally, requiring no human intervention, he said.
Global adoption of antimicrobial copper by the health-care industry could see world copper demand increase by upward of 500,000 metric tons a year, said Jurgen Leibbrandt, executive vice president of commercial development at the world's largest copper-mining company, Chilean state-owned Corporacion del Cobre de Chile, or Codelco. Codelco donated copper to intensive-care units across Chile last year.
The company also signed a collaboration agreement with Chile's rapidly expanding subway network to ensure future stations will be outfitted with copper handrails instead of stainless steel or plastic.
"If you add in the public-transport sector, that number could be one million metric tons" a year of increased demand, Mr. Liebbrandt said.
Analysts are more cautious about the impact of antimicrobial applications on the global copper market.
Write to Tatyana Shumsky at email@example.com