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The element of surprise

Copper’s hidden connection to the online dictionary and almost everything in our daily lives

Last updated: 29 Feburary 2024


Renowned lexicographer Susie Dent can’t live without her online dictionary. She joined our Chief Scientist Nigel Steward and host Dr Anna Ploszajski in our Things You Can’t Live Without podcast to unravel the surprising connection between the online dictionary and copper. Here we uncover some fun facts from their conversation.

Episode 1 guests
Chief Scientist Nigel Steward, Susie Dent, Dr Anna Ploszajski

Did miners really mistake nickel for copper?

Miners back in the day would stumble upon nickel, mistaking it for copper due to its similar appearance. They called it ‘Kupfernickel’ or ‘copper demon’. And in a linguistic twist, the German bread, pumpernickel, has the same moniker. Its name translates to ‘farting demon’ due to the digestive effects of its rye-heavy content.

How did copper help spread the written word?

In the 9th century, the Chinese used woodblocks for printing. Later, movable type emerged where individual characters were carved into wood or clay. This innovation reached Europe in the 15th century where Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, made history. He used brass, an alloy of copper, for his individual characters, to revolutionise the printing press. Dictionaries began being mass-produced, democratising the written word.

How many words and phrases are there in today’s dictionary?

Today’s printed dictionary, on a 15th century bookshelf, would be well over 20 volumes containing roughly 300,000-500,000 words and phrases, depending on how you count them. Now, thanks to smartphones, all of these words and phrases are at your fingertips. Modern smartphones contain around 90 elements from the periodic table, with copper making up almost 7% of the contents, mostly through wires and connectors1.  

What role does copper play in electricity?

The electrification of the world, pioneered by the likes of Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse in the early 20th century, triggered a surge in copper production. Without its exceptional conductivity, the efficient transmission of electricity, as we know it today, would not be possible. Copper is the critical but invisible conductor powering everything from the charge in our devices to the lights in our homes and medical devices like pacemakers.

Can copper really kill germs?

Ever wonder what keeps your tap water safe? Copper plays a crucial role, and not just in delivering clean water to your home through pipes and fittings. Thanks to its inherent antimicrobial properties, copper actually helps fight germs by preventing them from multiplying in your water system. This helps ensure the water you drink is clean and safe.

How does copper help keep things cold?

Imagine life without a fridge. Not only would your food go bad super-fast, but important things like wouldn’t stay cool enough to work properly. Copper plays an important role in refrigeration because it can conduct both heat and electricity. It's mostly used in parts called heat exchangers, which extract heat from inside the fridge and release it as warm air outside.

How much copper is left in the world?

Copper is a finite resource. To meet the needs of the energy transition, by 2050, we’ll need to produce as much copper as we have in the entire 5,000-year history of humankind. And to achieve this, we’ll need to find more sustainable ways to extract it. Most of the easily accessible copper in the world has been mined, so we’ll need to go deeper underground to find more.

Plus, we need to find ways of producing it with a zero-carbon footprint. This is why we are putting battery electric vehicles into some of our underground mines, looking at ways to repower our smelters and refineries with renewable energy, and developing new methods for processing our materials that aren’t reliant on fossil fuels.

Is there an alternative to copper?

Copper is not replaceable in every situation. Other elements, like silver and gold, share similar properties to copper in terms of conductivity, but their cost and rarity make them impractical for widespread use. And while aluminium conducts electricity well, it's more reactive than copper and prone to corrosion when combined with other metals. Copper exhibits exceptional stability, making it ideal for long-term use in plumbing, electrical systems, and other applications.

How can we get more copper with less waste?

One strategy involves revisiting old copper mine waste and extracting any remaining copper using new technologies. This could essentially transform previously closed mines into valuable new resources. Recently, we discovered we can extract tellurium – one of the rarest elements on Earth – from slime, a waste material leftover from copper smelting. And that material is now going to a manufacturer of cadmium telluride solar panels in the US.

Is fusion power possible?

While renewable energy sources like wind and solar are crucial, they're not the complete solution. Experts hope that fusion might be the answer. Between international projects underway in France and the many startups working in this field, it’s an exciting time. A fusion breakthrough could provide a clean and virtually limitless source of energy, creating a more sustainable future for our planet and its resources like copper.

How essential is copper to the online dictionary?

Just like spellcheck, online dictionaries will likely remain an essential tool for navigating the ever-evolving world of language. The more pressing challenge is developing methods for producing everything, including dictionaries, with a minimal environmental and social footprint. From the devices we use to access online dictionaries to the infrastructure powering those devices, we are committed to finding better ways to produce the copper the world needs, achieving net zero emissions from our operations by 2050.

Want to learn more about copper? Listen to Susie, Nigel and Dr Anna on Things You Can’t Live Without.

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