Copper, a metal traditionally known as one of the best conductors of electricity, has played a strong role in the electrical and electronics industries. Nevertheless,the “red metal” has begun to shine in the healthcare field because of its antibacterial qualities and its ability to limit the spread of pathogenic microorganisms.

Aware of these benefits, the Innovation Program for the Mining Cluster of Chile has given recognition to a project utilizing copper as an antibacterial agent at the Hospital of Calama in Chile’s Second Region. The Program, which is a joint public- and private-sector initiative aiming to enhance the development of the country’s mining sector, holds innovation competitions each year.

This Calama project is sponsored by Codelco, the country’s principal state-owned copper producer, and it involves applying copper and copper alloys to medical devices that require repeated touching or handling. Such devices include serum holders; pencils for inputting data on computer screens; meal tables for patients; levers that regulate beds and bed arms, and chairs for [hospital] visitors. In each case, the goal is to combat the spread of infections inside the hospital.

José Pablo Arellano, president of Codelco, notes that “the EPA, the most important environmental agency in the United States, has recognized copper as the leading anti-bacterial metal in the world; this opens enormous uses and possibilities for copper in hospitals.” Isabel Marshall, vice-president of finance, promotion and sustainability at Codelco, announced recently that “between 2008 and 2012, Codelco will invest about $1.5 billion in various sustainability initiatives based on copper’s antibacterial effects.”

Such efforts result from the fact that Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of copper. According to a recent report from the country’s Central Bank, copper exports for 2008 reached $25.06 billion in August, which represents 8.9% growth over the previous year.

“The mining industry contributes an average of about 20% of Chile’s GDP and represents more than 60% of Chilean exports,” notes Viviana Araneda, director of ProChile in Los Angeles, Calif. ProChile is a subsidiary of Chile’s foreign ministry, which oversees the country’s trade policy.

“The profits derived from exports of copper are now the equivalent of all of the sales that take place in Chile’s retail sector. The average mining company currently exports more tonnage of copper than the salmon industry and the grape industry combined,” notes Juan Carlos Guajardo, executive director of Cesco, the Chilean center for research on copper and mining. Cesco is an organization that contributes to the public debate about strengthening the country’s mining activities.

Reducing Infections inside the Hospital

According to Rubén Polanco, professor of biochemistry at the Andrés Bello University, “The positive impact of the copper antibacterial project on the healthcare sector could wind up being very significant. According to a recent article published in the Chilean Review of Infectious Diseases, about 70,000 infections are contracted inside [Chilean] hospitals each year, costing the country an estimated $70 million.”

Guillermo Figueroa, head of microbiology and probiotics at the University of Chile, adds that “a significant percentage of people who enter any hospital wind up suffering a disease that has no relationship with the disease they had when they entered [the hospital].” Figueroa adds that between 6,000 and 7,000 people die each year in Chile because of infections they contracted when they were inside medical institutions.

According to Polanco, “If the use of copper instruments in hospitals reduces the survival rate of pathogenic microorganisms, it can certainly contribute to lowering infections within hospitals, and have a positive impact on the costs associated with these types of infections.”

Polanco adds that the Codelco initiative could mark the beginning of a new industry in Chile, involving the production of hospital fixtures and tools made of copper and copper alloys. “They could range from such simple and ordinary things as door handles to more specialized materials such as surgical instruments,” he says.

That view is echoed by Fernando Acevedo, a professor of biochemistry at the Catholic University of Valparaíso. Acevedo emphasizes that “the application of copper and copper alloys in the healthcare sector could take place right away because it has already been proven that the ‘red metal’ has an antibacterial character.”


New Products Based on Copper


Polanco notes that “the country’s food sector could become another sector that derives benefits, since it could use [copper] on surfaces when food is produced and handled. This would reduce the risks of spreading bacteria, and guarantee better quality control in [food-related] processes for the population.”


Acevedo agrees that “the use of copper could also extend to food processing on an industrial scale as well within the household.”


Polanco goes further, noting that “the textile industry faces an interesting [opportunity] because it could incorporate copper into the manufacturing of fabrics and diversify production on a grand scale to manufacture bed clothes for hospitals; socks and pillow cases; clothing for medical personnel who work in hospitals; as well as drapes.”


In that regard, Rodolfo Mannheim, professor of metallurgical engineering at the University of Santiago in Chile (USACH), says that “research into copper on a bacteriological level has yielded satisfactory results demonstrating that it is an effective antimicrobial agent in socks, towels and underwear.” To the degree that this research continues to make progress, copper and copper alloys will be used in an ever wider range of applications within hospitals, “and it also will extend to use in the home, in bathrooms and kitchens.”


Another interesting area where the antibacterial attributes of copper can be applied, notes Polanco, is in copper-lined air conditioning filters. “It’s been proven that certain bacterial strains and funguses develop rapidly in humid, dark environments, such as ventilation ducts in air conditioning equipment. In fact, the circulation of air through these systems facilitates the spread of microorganisms in the form of aerosols.”


That can lead to serious infections, especially among hospital patients whose immune systems have already been compromised, Polanco notes. “Various studies show that filters made with copper have an extraordinary antibacterial effect.”


Overcoming a Lack of Research


Polanco argues that it is very important for Chilean industry to react to the change from “the traditional use of copper to the non-traditional use,” and to take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up. “Without doubt, the Codelco initiative represents a big opportunity to develop new markets, create new companies, and especially to expand scientific research and technology inside [Chile].”


According to Polanco, the current situation offers suitable conditions for creating a new industry focused on the production of non-traditional copper products. “The government is promoting these kinds of innovative initiatives and Chile has the skilled workforce required for carrying them out successfully,” he says.


Nevertheless, Mannheim insists that Chile must first perfect its knowledge of the biological properties of copper. “In the scientific world, much still remains to be learned about how its antibacterial properties actually work. So long as we fail to explain this puzzle, it will be hard for us to continue innovating and applying advanced technology in non-traditional products that are based on copper.”


One challenge to developing new products based on copper could arise from the shortage of basic scientific research about the antibacterial attributes of such new products, Polanco says. “It is very important that research demonstrate the antimicrobial effectiveness of copper in any potential new product that may be launched in the market, so that we can demonstrate its scientific foundations and offer guarantees to its end users.”


Acevedo adds that “health authorities must be very strict when certifying [the quality and effectiveness of] new products that are made from copper and alloys of copper.”


The Economic and Psychological Barrier


Guajardo of Cesco does not believe that the high price of copper on world markets this year will ultimately become a barrier that prevents Chilean industry from developing new products based on the metal.


“Progress in developing new commercial products based on copper’s antibacterial properties will continue despite the fact that the metal is still selling at a high price, because the [potential] benefits for the healthcare sector are very significant,” he says. Currently, copper is selling at $3.17 a pound on the London Metal Exchange, after peaking at $4.07 a pound on July 3.


Guajardo adds that the health benefits of copper can save Chile a lot of money in its annual healthcare budget. “So this characteristic is going to favor its use.”


It could even lead to a substitution effect, like any other products, goods or services that offer a great deal of added value, says Guajardo. “In the case of copper, the closest substitute is steel, but the price of that metal has also gone up quite a bit.”


Guajardo notes that “some psychological barriers could develop when these innovative and untraditional products are introduced into the market. However,” he adds, “because these products have great potential, I believe they will, over the course of time, obtain a significant share of the market.”