Native Element Copper

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Jeffrey E. Post, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Post

Photograph by Cara Santelli, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Jeffrey Post is the curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. As far back as he can remember in childhood, Post collected rocks and fossils around his home near Madison, Wis. The symmetry of mineral crystals fascinated him, and experiments with a large chemistry set helped develop his interest in science. He earned a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 1981 and joined the Smithsonian in 1984. Post’s research projects include the physical and chemical properties of fine-grained, environmentally significant minerals such as clays, manganese oxides, and iron oxides. He also uses powerful X-ray beams at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, N.Y.) to study the crystal structures of these minerals. With his Smithsonian colleagues, Post is always seeking new gem and mineral acquisitions for the Smithsonian. He analyzes specimens to resolve curatorial questions, oversees loans of Smithsonian gems to other museums, supervises the team that is building the collection website, meets with donors, and answers public inquiries about the Smithsonian mineral collection.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.
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Native sulfur, Italy
Photographed by Ken Larsen, Smithsonian Institution

What Are Native Elements?

In nature, only a few elements occur in their native form as a single, solid element, not chemically combined with others. Gold, the best known example, is less chemically active than most other elements that exist in solid form. Gold occurs as tiny particles in rocks; as hot water seeps through bedrock, it may carry the gold bits until they accumulate into small nuggets. A few other metals, such as silver and copper, are sometimes found in small standalone amounts in nature. Whether silver, copper, and platinum combine with other elements or remain as native elements depends on their proximity to other chemically active substances. A few nonmetallic elements also may occur in native form. For example, plain sulfur collects around the vents of hot springs and volcanoes, as well as in sedimentary structures like salt domes. In nature, carbon can appear in two different native forms, graphite and diamond, depending on how much heat and pressure have been applied to it.

Modern copper cable
Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto (WikiCommons)

Minerals in Electrical Technology

About 200 years ago, scientists studying electricity realized that metals allowed electrical currents to flow through them much more easily than most nonmetals. Because of its relative abundance, high electrical conductivity, and malleability (or ability to be shaped), copper has become the standard material for electrical wiring and switching. Certain types of low-iron silicates, such as muscovite and pyrophyllite, are naturally occurring electrical insulators. Glass or porcelain insulators, made from such minerals as quartz and feldspar, keep high-voltage power-transmission lines from touching their poles. Pyrolusite is the naturally occurring mineral version of manganese oxide, which is inside every non-rechargeable alkaline battery. Gasoline-powered articles start their engines with a jolt of electricity from lead-acid batteries, which get their lead from the mineral galena. Other rechargeable batteries contain nickel, cadmium, or other metals, found in a variety of ores.

U.S. Lincoln one-cent coin
Courtesy of the U.S. Mint, Public Domain

About Money and Metal Jewelry

Shiny metals have been associated with beauty and wealth throughout human history. Gold, silver, and copper are three of the few metals that sometimes occur uncombined with other elements in nature, so it was relatively easy for ancient humans to collect them for personal adornment and trading. Copper jewelry emerged about 7,000 years ago, and the Egyptians began to make gold jewelry between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. In many cultures, people put much of their wealth into their jewelry, both metallic and non-metallic (stones and bones), and used it as currency before the idea of money developed. The first coins appeared in the areas now known as Turkey and Greece about 2,600 years ago. Over the centuries, humans added so-called "base" metals to the gold and silver in coins, whose value became determined by law, not the actual value of the metals in the coin. Today, a U.S. "copper" penny is 97.5 percent zinc with a thin coating of copper; higher-denomination coins have a copper core covered with a copper-nickel alloy.