What happens when copper corrodes

Copper and rust - do they go together?

Can copper really rust?

Copper and rust do not go together, at least in colloquial terms. Because anyone who speaks colloquially of rust means the corrosion of ferrous metals. The product that is created during iron oxidation is called rust: iron oxide such as iron (III) oxide hydroxide FeO (OH).

The oxidation or corrosion of copper

With copper, on the other hand, different chemical reactions occur. On the one hand, there is the patina on copper. But there are more chemical reactions:

  • Patina on copper
  • Pitting
  • Verdigris

Creation of the patina on copper

The background can be easily explained without delving too deeply into chemistry: depending on what and how the copper is in contact, different chemical reactions occur. The copper patina is a simple reaction primarily with oxygen. This oxide layer behaves similarly to other metals - it forms a protective layer.

If iron rusts, it literally eats its way into the metal, while the passive layer formed with the help of oxygen protects the copper underneath. This passive layer is also found on other metals such as aluminum. That is also the reason why pressed or soldered copper pipes are so popular in sanitary installations. The pipes become more durable thanks to the passive layer.

Pitting corrosion in copper - effects like rust in iron

To form this passive layer, the water must be soft and rich in oxygen. Hard, acidic water with a pH value below 6 and a lack of oxygen, on the other hand, lead to pitting. This pitting then also has an effect that can easily be compared with that of rust. Just as rust continues to eat its way into the iron, so is pitting.

In the pipe cross-section, you have to imagine a cavity that is significantly larger under the surface than the "opening" to the surface. As a result, pitting in the interior of the pipe is even more advanced, since there is usually no oxygen at all in these cavities, but the acidic water is. Once this type of rust has established itself in the copper pipe, the pitting corrosion progresses faster and faster.

The counterpart to iron rust: verdigris in copper

The effects of pitting can best be compared with rust. But verdigris is ultimately the direct equivalent to rust. It is a copper salt that is dissolved in acetic acid - copper (II) acetate. Cu (CH3COO) 2. This copper rust differs from the likewise green patina in that the patina consists of a mixture of copper (carbonate-sulfate-chloride) -hydroxide.

Properties and uses of this copper rust

This "copper rust", verdigris, is slightly poisonous, which is why it must not be used in copper pipelines in drinking water systems. The verdigris itself is also used as a color pigment or as a fungicide. It is created by dipping copper in acetic acid and then having contact with the outside air. Although verdigris is undesirable in many applications, its properties make it necessary in certain industrial sectors.

In the case of copper as rust, a generalized estimate is not meaningful

Rusting iron is a relatively simple matter. Copper, on the other hand, reacts very individually to various substances surrounding it. It is therefore not easy to speak of rust. Because the copper oxide layer, pitting and verdigris have completely different causes and effects and cannot simply be generalized as rust.

As already mentioned, there are certainly applications in which at least the patina is desired. This process can also be initiated artificially. Here's how to artificially age copper.