August 2017

Book review: Metals, Energy and Sustainability: The Story of Doctor Copper and King Coal by Barry Golding and Suzanne D Golding

  • By Keith Sweatman, Senior Technical Advisor, Nihon Superior Co, Ltd

Although the clearly stated intention of this book is to establish whether copper will continue to be available at a reasonable price for the service of humanity into the foreseeable future, neither the authors nor the reader should be disappointed by the inevitable conclusion that ‘it all depends…’

If the Goldings have not come up with a definitive answer to their own question, they have provided a meticulously detailed review of all the factors – technical, economic and political – that will determine what the answer will eventually be. In doing so, they have created a valuable resource for everyone concerned about the future availability of any material that has to be extracted from the earth. Certainly, this book should be prescribed reading for anyone who dares to pontificate on issues of sustainability.

Coal enters into the consideration because it is identified as the energy source that, over the past century or two, has made copper available at a reasonable price for the service of humanity.

Given the role that coal, and later other fossil fuels, have played in the mining and smelting of copper, it is not surprising that the widespread concern about their contribution to greenhouse gases is identified as one of the main factors likely to affect its future availability. On that point, the authors provide some evidence that the copper industry has the capacity to respond to that challenge. From their detailed analysis of US data, they conclude that from the middle of the 20th century until 2002, the industry maintained a steady downward trend in the energy per kilogram required for the production of copper. There can be a reasonable expectation that the industry will be able to continue the innovation that has made it possible to maintain that trend in the face of market pressures. The explanation of the technical developments that have supported this trend provides a fascinating insight into the amazing advances that have been made in mining and metallurgical technology.

There is always a risk in making claims about the importance of particular materials, inventions, or for that matter people, in the advancement of humankind. While copper and coal have undoubtedly been essential components of the economic and social development that humankind has enjoyed, they are just two of the factors in a network of complexity that defies attempts at modelling. Those who analyse the development of human society from other perspectives might question the singling out of copper and coal and the use of the epithets ‘Doctor’ and ‘King’. To some extent, the Goldings acknowledge this reality in their account of the changing patterns of copper and coal usage as technologies change and new materials are discovered or developed.

The issues relevant to copper availability – and the related issue of the availability of coal to support its mining and extraction – are covered systematically in the following four sections, and are well-supported by references from a diversity of sources:

  1. the role of copper and coal in the advance of human society and the change in the pattern of demand as new technologies have emerged (29 references)
  2. deposits of copper and coal and how they were formed (19 references)
  3. the history of copper and coal in the service of humanity, including hooks and awls from Anatolia dated to 7000 BC – the first objects providing evidence of human use of copper (232 references)
  4. sustainability – the interacting effects of declining grades and limits on the availability and increasing expense of the energy needed to extract metallic copper from the earth (70 references).

The text is illuminated by 80 figures: graphs that effectively present in visual form the sometimes complex analyses and photographs that bring the accounts to life. That some of the photographs were taken by the authors in their extensive travel to copper mines around the world adds credibility and a personal touch to the book. The Goldings are clearly committed to their subject.

Potential readers concerned that ploughing through this book could be a tedious challenge can be reassured that the solid technical content is richly leavened with countless fascinating snippets of history and anecdotes that make the book a pleasure to read. That the anecdotes and the scores of footnotes often drift into subjects far outside the core topic is an unexpected bonus.

This title is available to purchase in both hardcover and e-book format from the Springer website.   

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