Teachers Powered by teachers'domain

The Value of Copper

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 08.09.12
  • NOVA

In this video excerpt from NOVA's "Hunting the Elements," New York Times technology columnist David Pogue visits the New York Mercantile Exchange to learn about copper's essential role in human civilization. Find out about the valued properties of copper and its many applications, including electronics and building materials. Hear about the global copper market and discover how copper is such an important metal that its price can be used to gauge economic health.

Permitted use: Download Download

NOVA The Value of Copper
  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 3m 49s
  • Size: 13.6 MB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

  • Log in to Teachers' Domain to download, share, rate, save, and match to state standards.

Source: NOVA: "Hunting the Elements"

This media asset was excerpted from NOVA: "Hunting the Elements."

Teaching Tips

Here are some of the main ideas students should take away from this video:

  • Copper (Cu) is a metal that has been used by humans for thousands of years.
  • Copper can be extracted by heating rocks.
  • Copper has unique characteristics—it has excellent electrical conductivity, is malleable, and has antimicrobial properties—that make it desirable for many applications. It is commonly found in wires, computer chips, plumbing, and building materials.
  • Over 20 million tons of copper are bought and sold each year.
  • Copper is such a widely used material that its price is a reliable indicator of economic health.

Questions for Discussion

    • What are some common uses of copper?
    • What properties of copper make it so useful?
    • Why is copper sometimes referred to as "Dr. Copper?"
    • What does Harriet Hunnable mean when she says that "Copper is king."


DAVID POGUE (Technology Guru): Copper; symbol Cu; atomic number 29—29 protons, 29 electrons.

The ancients first learned how to heat rocks to extract copper, at least 7,000 years ago.

And, today, it's one of the most widely bought and sold metals in the world. The New York Mercantile Exchange is a vital hub in the global metals market, which is pretty good news for me.

At least, I thought so.

ED MOSES (Director, National Ignition Facility): Sorry, sir, you can't come in with this.

DAVID POGUE: I thought this is a copper exchange. I'm here to exchange some copper.

ED MOSES: I'm sorry, that's not allowed on the floor. You can't come in with this.

DAVID POGUE: Seriously? The only business that they're willing to do here is to buy or sell copper futures? Like, who would fall for that?

ANTHONY GRISANTI (Commodities Trader): Oh, this is an old, old business. This goes back to the 1800s, the late 1800s, where farmers were looking, actually, for money to plant their next year's crops. So what the farmers would do is they would say, for example, "David, you loan me some money, okay? And then, in the future, I will sell you that crop that I planted for this amount of dollar."

So what I'm doing is I'm selling you the right to buy or sell my future crops.

DAVID POGUE: So this crazy high-tech thing began as a glorified farmer's market?

HARRIET HUNNABLE (Managing Director, CME Group): In fact, this exchange, in New York, started as a butter and cheese exchange, on Harrison Street.

DAVID POGUE: Is it safe to say there's no cheese pit here somewhere?

Uh, gruyere, gruyere! Cheddar, cheddar!

HARRIET HUNNABLE: David, you have to go to Chicago for that.

DAVID POGUE: They still do that?

HARRIET HUNNABLE: Yeah, they still trade agricultural products.

DAVID POGUE: I would think that there would be trading markets like this for gold and silver and platinum, and things that are valuable, but copper? Come on, it's like pennies, it's like…

HARRIET HUNNABLE: Copper is king, okay? Copper is used for everything. It's a really vital metal. We use it for infrastructure; we use it for electronic goods. I can hardly think of anything that doesn't have either a tiny bit of copper or lots of copper. I love copper. I do. I do.

DAVID POGUE: I'm getting that.

Harriet tells me that the copper market is huge. Traders in New York, London and Shanghai buy and sell more than 20 million tons a year. Copper is in wire, electronics and computer chips, plumbing and other building materials. It's so important that the rise and fall of copper prices provide a snapshot of the health of the entire world economy. When times are bad, copper prices tumble, and when times are good, they soar. Some say it should be called "Dr. Copper," because it's the only metal with a Ph.D. in economics.

Copper has been prized for millennia for its unique properties: it conducts electricity better than any metal except silver; it's malleable and has a moderate melting temperature; it even scares away bacteria.

These guys can trade their copper futures; I've got to unload my copper today.

Commodities! Get your commodities! Got copper at 80 cents a pound. Anybody? Anybody?

Resource Produced by:

WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

U.S. Department of Energy

Related Resources

  • Hunting the Elements

    A two-hour special from the producers of "Making Stuff"

  • Atomic Structure of an Alloy

    Learn about the atomic structure of bronze, a copper alloy, in this video excerpt from NOVA's "Hunting the Elements."

  • NOVA Elements

    Explore the periodic table, and build atoms and molecules in this web edition of the NOVA Elements iPad App.

  • Developing the Periodic Table

    This video excerpt from NOVA's "Hunting the Elements" looks at how early chemists developed the periodic table.