Copper (Cu) has a cultural significance as it was the first metal used by man (probably as early as 7000 BC). Neolithic man mined native copper and used it as a substitute for stone; its malleability enabled easy shaping of tools by beating it. Copper was smelted as early as 3500 BC at Timna in Israel. Its property of alloying with other metals (particularly tin) was discovered about 500 years later and heralded the Bronze Age, which started in southern Europe between 3000 and 2500 BC.
While some copper mineralization had been discovered during drilling in the late 1920s, the major find did not come until 1930, when drilling to explore the lead–zinc ore body passed through almost 38 meters of copper mineralization with an average grade of 4.3% copper. While this was a very good grade, MIM did not have the financial resources to develop the copper, and it was not until global copper prices increased in 1937 that there was an incentive for further copper exploration. These efforts were initially unsuccessful, but yielded fruit in 1940 and 1941. However, it was not until 1941–1942 that mining of the No. 7 level of the Black Star lead-zinc ore body allowed the existence of an economic copper deposit to be established.
The growth of the copper industry has been intimately linked with the increasing use of electricity with electrical applications continuing to be the metal’s principal use which can be attributed to two physical properties. It is an excellent electrical (and heat) conductor and is ductile enough to be drawn into wire and beaten into sheets without fracturing. Copper is used widely in plumbing components and is a major component of alloys, many of which are harder, stronger and tougher than their individual constituent elements.
Australia’s main copper mining centres are in the Mount Isa/Cloncurry region of Queensland and at Olympic Dam in South Australia. The Mount Isa mine, which also produces large tonnages of lead, zinc and silver, currently is the largest copper producer in Australia and is one of the world’s biggest underground mines. At Mount Isa, the copper ore bodies are separate from the lead-zinc-silver ore bodies, thus enabling independent production of the two ore types. Across Australia, relatively small amounts of copper are recovered as a by-product of silver-lead-zinc, nickel and gold mining.