November 16, 2008

Chile Finds Innovative Uses For Copper

There is nothing like waking up on a chilly morning and pulling on a pair of copper socks? How about using a copper towel when getting out of the shower? Maybe you should use a copper railing when getting on the subway.

Believe it or not, this is only a small amount of the uses that Chile, the world's largest copper producer, has for the malleable red metal.

Copper has been used ever since ancient times to create tools, weapons and even plumbing systems. Investigators are now testing new ways to manipulate the metal and develop its bacteria and fungus fighting capabilities.

"Public transport systems, where germs can be transmitted and there are large numbers of people, there is a potential market for applications for surface-metal copper," said Jurgen Leibbrandt, head of market development for the Chilean state copper juggernaut Codelco.

"In clothes there is another venue ... where it has excellent anti-fungus qualities," he added.

Codelco is currently working with a private division to sell socks, towels, pillowcases and even underwear sewn with copper fibers that kill fungi and even help fight acne.

The private sector is also trying to link Chile's leading export, copper, with the salmon industry, another one of its best-known exports, to stop disease in fish.

Chile is the world's second biggest salmon manufacturers after Norway, even though the industry has high costs due to pricey solutions to help stop infections.

"Joining these two industries to finding a solution that is economically viable is certainly viable," stated Leibbrandt.

Manufacturers insist that copper contains properties that destroy bacteria and helps to reduce any threat of illness.

A Chilean entrepreneur, Joaquin Ruiz, invented copper sponge filters to purify the water used on salmon farms to eradicate disease and fungi. This reduced the need of the big amounts of expensive antibiotics currently used to do the same job.

"That means huge savings. Instead of using large quantities of antibiotics and germ killing agents, with this you are just putting up a simple sanitary barrier," Ruiz.

Codelco is also experimenting with bacteria-repellant cages.

Investigators are also inspecting if they can use copper to decrease levels of contagion in hospitals as they have discovered that the metal kills Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium accountable for hard-to-treat infections in humans.

"If you prevent one MRSA infection, you save $21,000, so your return on investment will be very, very short, perhaps one patient," said Michael Schmidt, of the University of South Carolina medical school.

"So this is going to be a fairly efficient and inexpensive solution to combat infections."


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