The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recognised copper as the world’s leading anti-bacterial metal. This has led to a number of uses and opportunities for copper in medical applications. Here, Melissa Albeck, CEO of materials comparison website Matmatch, explains the benefits of using copper in comparison to other materials on the market.

When you think of a typical hospital environment, you’ll probably think of a sterile setting that is likely adorned in white. However, many hospitals are beginning to punctuate the clinical white with another colour; the reddish glow of copper.

For example, a hospital in Chile recently started applying copper or copper alloys to medical applications that require repeated touching and handling. This includes pens for inputting data on computers screens, bed levers and chairs for hospital visitors — all of which were traditionally made of plastic. This is just one example. More and more healthcare equipment designers are swapping out plastics for time-tested copper.

The copper industry is a major contributor to the global economy and used in everything from construction to electrical wiring. It’s reported that a tonne of copper can be used to power 60,000 mobile phones and distribute electricity to 30 homes. In addition to being a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity, copper also contains very potent antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Awareness of copper’s natural antimicrobial properties dates back centuries. In fact, the Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text written between 2600 and 2200 B.C, records the use of copper to sterilise chest wounds and drinking water. Evidence like this has led researchers to believe that copper compounds can not only cure disease but assist in reducing the number of infections.

This is particularly important in Europe, where a study conducted between 2011 and 2012 from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found one in 18 patients were reported to have at least one healthcare associated infection each day. Resulting in 90,000 deaths, infection can be spread among patients in a clinical setting by various means, including contaminated equipment.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), copper can kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria that lands on its surface within two hours. In comparison, additional chemicals and contaminants can leach onto plastics and make them harmful to both humans and wildlife.

Similarly, stainless steel, which is another material used widely in hospitals and health-care environments, is known for harbouring bacteria and, if left uncleaned, can also lead to pathogens.

With these antimicrobial features in mind, it’s no surprise that copper has become increasingly popular as an alternative to plastic in medical applications, such as sterile table tops and medical cart handles.

By replacing the current surfaces in hospitals with antimicrobial copper surfaces, it’s reported that the number of healthcare associated infections could be reduced by 58 per cent, according to the Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Turning to traditional materials, like copper, offers designers some surprising benefits compared to the materials that are currently used in medical applications. By helping healthcare professionals to significantly reduce the risk of spreading infections across a hospital, copper can help medical staff improve the overall quality of care for their patients.

For future projects, design engineers and product designers should look to Matmatch to research materials for their application. With over 90,000 materials to choose from, designers and engineers can search the required shape, material type and density to source the best material for their product.