Activity Details




Students will learn

  • How metal (copper) can be extracted from mined rock through a process called “solvent extraction.”



  • Safety goggles, as safety equipment
  • Rubber gloves, as safety equipment
  • Laboratory coat, as safety equipment
  • Small plastic container, in which the extraction process is carried out
  • 2 tablespoons of crushed oxide copper ore, as the source of copper
  • 2 to 4 oz. of diluted (5% solution) sulfuric acid (H2SO4), as the solvent
  • 2 clean iron nails, for extracting the copper ions
  • Steel wool, for cleaning the iron nails



  • Put approximately two tablespoons of crushed oxide copper ore into the plastic container.
  • Completely cover the crushed rock with diluted (5% solution) sulfuric acid (H2SO4).
  • Wait 5 to 10 minutes for the copper to dissolve and a blue solution to appear.
  • The iron nails should be cleaned before use with steel wool to remove any residual wax.
  • Next dip a clean iron nail into the solution.
  • Through ion exchange, the positive iron ions attract the copper ions in solution and copper instantly plates onto the iron nail.


Q1.Where is copper ore found?





Q2.How is copper recovered and processed?





Q3.How much energy is involved in processing copper ore?





Q4. Think about the cost of finding, crushing, and transporting the ore to a processing plant and the cost of electricity.





Q5.How would our daily lives be affected if all the copper on Earth disappeared?






Teacher Notes



  • Remember, when doing any activity that involves the use of chemicals, be sure to use the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as gloves, safety glasses, and laboratory coats.
  • Perform this activity in a well ventilated area, avoid breathing any fumes produced.
  • Although relatively dilute, every precaution should be taken to keep the acid from touching skin or clothing.
  • If you get some acid on your skin, rinse the skin immediately with plenty of cold water.
  • Remember to dispose of the remaining blue solution properly; be sure to dilute the solution with 1 gallon of water, and wash the plastic container thoroughly.


Tips and Tricks:


  • The process of finding or exploring for a mineral deposit, extracting or mining the resource, recovering the resource, also known as beneficiation, and reclaiming the land mined can be described as the “life cycle” of a mineral deposit.
  • Mineral deposits are the source of many important commodities, such as copper and gold, used by our society, but it is important to realize that mineral deposits are a nonrenewable resource. Once mined, they are exhausted, and another source must be found. New mineral deposits are being continuously created by the Earth but may take millions of years to form.
  • Mineral deposits differ from renewable resources, such as agricultural and timber products, which may be replenished within a few months to several years.
  • The technical definition of a mineral is a naturally occurring, inorganic, homogeneous solid with a definite chemical composition and an ordered atomic arrangement. In more general terms, a mineral is a substance that is:
    (1) made of a single element like gold (Au) or a compound of elements like salt (NaCl) and/ or
    (2) a building block of rock (for example, granite is composed primarily of the minerals quartz and feldspar).
  • Minerals may be metallic, like gold, or nonmetallic, such as talc.
  • Oil, natural gas, and coal are generally considered to be “energy minerals” and are not discussed in this report.
  • A mineral deposit is a mineral occurrence of sufficient size and grade (concentration) to enable extraction under the most favorable conditions.
  • Two cycles determine how mineral deposits are formed— the ROCK CYCLE and the TECTONIC CYCLE.
  • Heat from the Earth’s interior melts some of the rocks in the crust (the upper part of the lithosphere).
  • Molten rocks lower in density than the surrounding cooler material rise toward the Earth’s surface and eventually cool and harden near to or on the surface.
  • The composition, temperature, pressure, and cooling process of the molten material determine the minerals and rock types formed.
  • These are called IGNEOUS ROCKS and contain original or primary minerals.
  • When these rocks are subjected to chemical and physical processes, such as freezing and thawing, they break apart into smaller fragments forming sediments.
  • These smaller particles that compose the sediments can be physically transported and re-deposited by gravity, water, and wind.
  • If the re-deposited particles are bound together by compaction or cementation (formation of new secondary minerals in the spaces between the loose particles), SEDIMENTARY ROCKS are formed.
  • In regions where the Earth’s interior temperature and pressure are high enough to change the chemical composition and mineralogy of buried igneous or sedimentary rocks, without completely melting them, METAMORPHIC ROCKS are formed.
  • Distinct groups or assemblages of minerals are typically associated with the formation of each of the three major rock types—igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks.
  • PLATE TECTONICS play a major role in the processes of mineral and rock formation.
  • In geologic terms, a plate is a large, “rigid” slab of solid rock.
  • The word tectonics comes from the Greek root “to build.”
  • The term plate tectonics refers to the process by which the Earth’s crust is formed and moved.
  • The theory of plate tectonics states that the Earth’s outermost layer, the crust, is fragmented into a dozen or more plates of various sizes that are moving relative to one another as they are slowly transported on top of and by hotter, more mobile material (Kious and Tilling, 1996).
  • Scientists now have a fairly good understanding of how the plates move and how earthquake activity relates to such movement.
  • Most movement occurs along narrow zones between plates where the effects of tectonic forces are most evident.

There are four types of plate boundaries:

  • Divergent boundaries—where new crust is generated as the plates pull away from each other.
  • Convergent boundaries—where crust is destroyed as one plate dives under another.
  • Transform boundaries—where crust is neither produced nor destroyed as the plates slide horizontally past each other.
  • Plate boundary zones—broad belts in which boundaries are not well defined and the effects of plate interaction are unclear (Kious and Tilling, 1996).

Hands-On Activities

  • This activity is one of a set of activities designed to educate students about geology, plate tectonics, and mineral resources and how mineral resources are found, extracted, processed, and used.
  • These activities are suited for the entire K-12 grade level range, but some may be best suited for the 5-8 or 9-12 grade levels (table 3). The activities are as follows:

Basic Geology—Concepts

Exploring for Minerals

Extracting Minerals

Uses of Minerals

Mineral Resources and Economics

Pre-activity preparation – Materials

  • Remind the students to use the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as gloves, safety glasses, and laboratory coats.
  • The iron nails, used in this activity, SHOULD NOT BE galvanized roofing nails or coated finish nails
  • Insist on students to use steel wool for cleaning the iron nails

Some information related to the Activity:

  • Extraction of metals from ores is usually a two-step process.
  • Step one is to produce a concentrate of the ore mineral. This is what is achieved by adding the crushed copper ore that contains both copper carbonate (CuCO3) and copper hydroxide (Cu(OH)2) minerals.
  • The next step is to use a caustic solution (acid) to leach (dissolve) the metal from the ore or concentrate.
  • The metal is recovered from solution by an electrolytic process known as electrowinning. This is where a pure metal is precipitated onto the cathode of an electrochemical cell.
  • Many types of metals are recovered using this system referred to as solvent extraction-electrowinning (SX-EW).
  • With the help of electricity, copper can be electroplated onto large (4 foot by 4 foot) stainless-steel plates, producing approximately 200 pounds of copper on each side of a plate in 3 to 5 days.
  • The activity you preformed involved crushing the copper ore and treating it with a weak solution of sulfuric acid.
  • The acid solution resulting from this treatment contained a high concentration of dissolved copper sulfate.
  • To precipitate the copper an iron nail was added.
  • The iron nail reacts with dissolved copper sulfate to produce solid copper and dissolved iron sulfate.
  • The remaining iron sulfate is a by product that must be either used or disposed of.
  • As mentioned above, copper can also be extracted from an acid solution through the use of electrolytic methods.
  • Hintfor answering Q5.: Copper is a good conductor of both heat and electricity. More than 70% of the copper consumed in the United States is used for electrical purposes. Copper is used in many industrial processes, airplane and automobile manufacturing, plumbing, and in major communications systems that use copper circuits and wires.



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