Bactericidal copper: Chile’s innovative gamble

Through this novel project, Chilean institutions are seeking to demonstrate the bactericidal properties of copper, opening up a path for a new industry linked to this metal.

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Chile’s main ore resource is copper and the world’s greatest proven reserves of the ore are found in this country. For this reason, national development is closely bound to the future of the copper industry.

Aware of this reality, the state-owned copper mining company Codelco, the InnovaChile program, the International Copper Association (ICA)and the Technological Transfer Foundation of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences of the Universidad de Chile (UNTEC) are working on a project that aims to demonstrate the bactericidal properties of copper on clinical surfaces subject to intense handling.

In February 2008, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the registration of the bactericidal property of copper and 275 of its alloys, this initiative was set in motion and has set itself ambitious goals.

According to Carmen Tardito, head of Codelco Market Strategy and Development, “the research will make it possible to demonstrate that surfaces covered with copper have significantly lower levels of bacteria than those with no copper covering. This makes it a notable complement for the sanitary protocols applied in hospital environments.”

At present, 70,000 intra-hospital infections are reported per year in Chile. On average, this increases patients’ stay at the hospital by 10 days, generating additional state expenditure in an amount close to US$70 million per year. The project seeks to reduce those figures significantly.

“If you reduce people’s stay in the hospitals, the savings and benefits for society are enormous”, states Omar Hernández, assistant director for Mining, Environment and Infrastructure at InnovaChile, an initiative linked to Corfo, Chile’s Production Development Corporation.

Development of a new industry
Although the reduction of bacterial infections is highly useful in itself, the main aim of the research is to develop alternative markets for Chilean copper.

Hernández himself acknowledges that “As long as the results of the research are as fully supported as possible, hospitals will not hesitate to recognize and take advantage of these findings. This will increase demand for parts and spares with copper content, generating a process of design and manufacturing development that can give rise to a whole new industry. And that is what this research is all about.”

This opinion is shared by Tardito, who hopes to “create an interesting market for copper and, in passing, contribute to increase people’s quality of life, and develop knowledge that will subsequently be placed at the disposal of the world of research and entrepreneurship.”

World figures ratify the viability of this new industry. In the U.S. alone, deaths by intra-hospital infection per year exceed those of AIDS and breast cancer, representing costs of more than US$30 billion a year, so the perspectives for the expansion of this market are very promising.

“If our research is successful, we’ll encourage the world to continue to consume copper”, stresses the InnovaChile representative. “And in passing, we’ll promote growing demand, providing projection and sustainability to the copper mining industry.”

Up to now, the partial results of the research have been satisfactory. It is hoped that in the course of 2010 these results can be consolidated and specific conclusions reached for their communication to the market.

Other uses for Chilean copper
While this option is being strengthened, Codelco is working on other possible uses for copper. Together with ICA and through its market development subsidiary, Incuba S.A., the state-owned copper company is currently implementing the manufacture and marketing of copper cages for salmon farming. The advantages of these cages are their anti-fouling properties, providing protection against predators and bacteria.

InnovaChile is also working in the same direction. The institution is promoting projects aimed at the use of micro-particles in clothing such as socks and towels for diabetics and athletes. The reason is simple: the qualities of the metal not only help to keep surfaces free of bacteria but also eliminate fungi.

“For the time being, we import the biocidal fibers for use in clothing, but we will soon begin to produce them”, concludes Hernández.

This post is also available in Spanish