Could copper help fight COVID-19? Three lessons from Chile
- Copper is a "super material' with anti-microbial traits.
- Chile is one of the world's biggest copper producers and is using the material to help its country thrive and the world tackle COVID.
- The country's use of the material could change how countries use their natural resources as drivers of innovation and progress.
Copper is one of the world’s most effective virus-killing materials, and could become a powerful ally in beating the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus has been found to survive only four hours on copper, but up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. In Chile, the world’s biggest copper producer, the metal’s antiviral properties have long been known. Chilean entrepreneurs have even used copper to develop an antimicrobial material for 3D printing, with many potential applications in healthcare. Now copper could not only transform the global struggle to end the pandemic. It could also change how countries use their natural resources as drivers of innovation and progress.
Far from being a mere raw material with little added value, copper has been found to be what’s known as a “super material”, a material with specific properties that can transform the path of technological progress. Apart from its antiviral properties, it also acts as an antibacterial and antifungal agent. For a long time, these qualities were little-used beyond Chile’s borders. In Chile, however, copper has been intensely studied and employed for its antimicrobial properties for years, an investment that is now yielding huge rewards. Here are three lessons we can learn from the way Chile is using its natural resource as a source of ground-breaking innovation:
Support home-grown innovators
Copper is an incredibly potent weapon against bacteria and viruses. When microbes land on copper and its alloys, for example because someone touches or sneezes on a surface, the metal releases copper ions. These electrically charged particles disrupt the outer coat of the virus and destroy the DNA and RNA inside. This means the virus cannot mutate and become resistant. In experiments, copper has killed pathogens within minutes.
Even before the pandemic, Chile pioneered the use of copper on surfaces and in objects for antimicrobial purposes, including public areas. There are around 70 companies that incorporate copper nanoparticles into their products as an antibacterial solution. Long before COVID-19, you could find copper in Chilean adult and baby clothing, shoes, cosmetics, sleeping bags, bed sheets, detergents and even paint. In 2014, Santiago International Airport introduced copper foils to their check-in and customer counters.
Ground-breaking solutions do not just pop up instantly whenever you happen to need them. Instead, they emerge through a long process of research, development and real-life use. Chile nurtured copper-related projects over many years. When the time came to use the material in the global pandemic, it was ready.
Collaborate with the world
In 2018, a group of four young Chilean entrepreneurs founded Copper3D, a start-up that develops cutting-edge antimicrobial materials for 3D printing. They incorporated copper nanoparticles into PLA plastic, a plastic made from renewable resources that is the most common material in 3D printing.
When healthcare workers around the world faced a global shortage of face masks in March, Copper3D created an open-source 3D print design for face masks, using their antimicrobial material for extra protection. Anyone wanting to produce the mask can order the material and then use the design to print the mask themselves. Demand was so high that their website collapsed in the first week. To date, the face mask design has been downloaded more than 21.5 million times from more than 50 countries all over the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, China, Japan and Nigeria. It put copper at the centre of global innovation.
Such projects dramatically change how copper and its producers are perceived. Chile has long supplied the world with this metal. According to the Chilean Copper Commission, it produces 5.78 million tons of copper a year, almost a third of the global output. However, historically, the metal was exported as a raw material with no added value, following the long-standing pattern of some countries functioning as exporters of natural resources, and others adding value through design, technology and advanced manufacturing. By producing copper and then transforming it through innovation, Chile is challenging this pattern. Its example shows that resource-rich countries can also lead the curve when it comes to ideas and technology.
Be open to creative solutions
In the midst of the coronavirus emergency, copper-inspired creativity has flourished among Chilean entrepreneurs. Several local companies and laboratories are producing antimicrobial products, such as hand and industrial sanitizers, that incorporate copper nanoparticles to prevent infection. According to the manufacturers, these sanitizers have a long-lasting effect, keeping the surfaces clean for up to two weeks.
Chilean authorities have been open to these new products, and have quickly implemented them on a large scale to stop the spread of the virus. Industrial sanitizers with added copper nanoparticles are used in many public spaces in Chile such as buses, government buildings and city council offices, as well as in hospitals and nursing homes. The Mining Minister of Chile, Baldo Prokurica, has even suggested incorporating copper nanoparticles in coins, bills and bank cards.
Mining for talent
Over the last few years, Chile has become a copper innovation hub. Talent, technology and natural resources form a virtuous triangle, resulting in solutions that serve the public interest. Through this health crisis, the world has now also discovered copper’s many uses and qualities. Buses, subways, airports and hospitals all over the world could be made safer by using disinfectants and even textiles such as bed sheets and protective clothing that incorporate copper nanoparticles.
More fundamentally, the crisis is forcing us to reconsider how we generate and share knowledge and new discoveries. The old paradigm that split the world into those who supplied the raw materials, and those who innovated, resulted in a huge waste of talent and potential. If we want to tackle the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, we must all work together, and draw on the widest possible pool of talent and ideas.
Copper-based innovation is just one powerful example of where home-grown ideas, support for research and development, and creative openness can take a country and its people. Many other life-changing ideas may be slumbering in other natural resource-rich countries. In Chile, there are certainly plenty of talented, enthusiastic and resilient people with an urge to share their ideas with the world.