Origins of Electrorerefining: Birth of the Technology and the World's First Commercial Electrorefinery

Additonal authors: Mackey, P.J.. Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:

Proceedings, Vol. Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019, 2019

Wraith, A.E.

The world’s first copper electrorefinery started production in 1869 at Burry Port in South Wales. Built within the Pembrey Copper Works which had commenced smelting operations in 1849, the new refinery was based on principles described in the British patents issued to J.B. Elkington in 1865 and 1869. Refining principles and practices pioneered there were key to the foundation of modern electro-refining practice in what is now a dominant international industry producing over 16 Mt of electrical grade copper annually. This paper explores the background to this pioneering application of the new, early 19th century, science of “electro-metallurgy” and examines its links to the contemporary decorative electro-plating industry and to the shortcomings of 19th century fire refining. The beginnings and early years of the Pembrey electrorefinery are briefly discussed in relation to the quality, applications and pyrometallurgy of copper at the time. More than a decade would elapse before the birth of the electrical age: the Pembrey refinery may be seen as one of its vital precursors. Note: This paper was originally published as part of the Copper 2013 proceedings (A.E. Wraith, P.J. Mackey and J. (formerly R.) Protheroe Jones, “Origins of Electrorefining: Birth of the Technology and the World’s First Commercial Electro-Refinery”, paper in Electrorefining, Vol. V, Book 2, (Eds. R. Abel and C. Delgado), Cu 2013 International Conference, pp. 19-33, IIMCh, Santiago, Chile, 2013). It is reproduced here together with a new Appendix and supporting references that lists the year of commencement of the first electrolytic copper refinery by country, 1869 to 1956. It all, the year of the first electrolytic copper refinery established for 15 countries is included. These 15 countries now produce more that 70% of world refined copper (for 2018). INTRODUCTION In the 1840s, the new science of ‘electro-metallurgy’, a term coined by Smee in 1841 (Smee, 1841), was being adapted to the decorative electro-deposition of silver in a thin, bright adherent coating that was evidently equal in appearance to traditional silverware (Williams, 1976). Chief among innovative manufacturers of decorative objects who took up the new art of silver electro-plating was the acclaimed firm of G.R. Elkington and Co. of Birmingham, England. The company, which vigorously developed all aspects of electro-metallurgy for the decorative trade, entered the field of ‘electrotyping’, a technique in which the surface features of a mould are copied on an electro-deposited copper layer which, when stripped off, can be used to reproduce an imprint of the mould. In essence, it is a form of casting by electrodeposition, invented in 1837 independently by Jacobi in Russia (Pavlova, 1968) and Spencer in England (Wyatt, 1851).
Mots Clés: Copper 2019, COM2019