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Cupronickel (sometimes incorrectly written as "Cupernickel" or "Coppernickel") is an alloy of copper that contains nickel and strengthening elements, such as iron and manganese. Cupronickel is highly resistant to corrosion in seawater, because its electrode potential is adjusted to be neutral with regard to seawater. Because of this, it is used for piping, heat exchangers and condensers in seawater systems as well as marine hardware, and sometimes for the propellers, crankshafts and hull of premium tugboats, fishing boats and other working boats.

A more familiar common use is in silver-coloured modern circulation coins. A typical mix is 75% copper, 25% nickel, and a trace amount of manganese. In the past true silver coins were debased with cupronickel. Despite high copper content, the colour of cupro-nickel remarkably is silver.

It is used in thermocouples, and the 55% copper/45% nickel alloy Constantan is used to make resistors whose resistance is stable across changes in temperature.

Monel metal is a nickel-copper alloy, containing minimum 63% nickel.

See also bronze (copper alloyed with tin), brass (copper alloyed with zinc), and nickel silver (another group of copper-nickel alloys).

Other names

Aside from cupro-nickel, many other terms exist which describe the same material. Still registered as tradenames re Alpaka or Alpacca (registered trademark), Argentan Minargent, the French term name Cuivre blanc Occasionally cupro-nickel is also referred to as "Hotel Silver", plata alemana (Spanish for "German Silver"), "German Silver" and "Chinese Silver".


[[Image:Pantaleon.jpg|thumb|300px|Cupronickel coin of king Pantaleon c. 170 BCE.

Obv: Bust of Dionysos with a wreath of leaves.

Rev: Panther with a small bell around the neck, touching a vine with the left leg. Greek legend: BASILEOS PANTALEONTOS "King Pantaleon".]]

Cupro-nickel was known to the Romans as an artificial "white" gold or silver termed "claudianum" and very possibly the"molybdochalcum" of the Alexandrians.

The cupro-nickel alloy was known by Chinesemarker since circa 3rd century BCE as "white copper" (some weapons from the Warring States Period were in copper-nickel alloy).

The ancient Greeks were producing it and a lower quality imitation of it in the Aegean Bronze Age and known as "orichalum". The Greco-Bactrian kings Euthydenus II dating from 180 to 170 BCE and his younger brothers Pantaleon and Agathocles around 170 BC.

The theory of Chinese origins of Bactrian cupro-nickel was suggested in 1868 by Flight, who found the coins and considered the oldest cupro-nickel coins yet discovered were of a very similar alloy to Chinese paktong. Cunningham in 1873 argued the coins must have been the result of overland trade from China, through India to Greece- highly controversial at the time and much derided. In 1973, Cheng and Schwitter in their new analyses argued the only place the Bactrian alloys (copper, lead, iron, nickel and cobalt) were closely similar to Chinese paktong, and that out of nine known Asian nickel deposits, only those in China could provide same identical chemical content ratios. However, this hypothesis although widely publicised, was later disproven by a perhaps over-enthusiastic oversight of the well-known Persian arsenic-nickel mines much closer to Bactria and known to be exploited by the Greeks and Persians.

Chinese history of cupronickel

The author-scholar Ho Wei describes most exactly the process in circa 1095 CE, which suggest the Chinese were not aware that nickel was a metal in its' own right. The paktong alloy was described as being made from adding small pills o naturally-occurring "Yunnan"ore to a bath of molten copper. When a crust of slag formed, saltpeter was added, the alloy stirred and the ingot immediately cast. Zinc is mentioned as an ingredient- but not detailed when exactly it was added. The ore used is noted as solely available from Yunnan, related from the story:
San Mao Chun were at Tanyang during a famine year when many people died, so taking certain chemicals, Ying projected them onto silver, turning it into gold, and he also transmuted iron into silver- thus enabling the lives of many to be save [though purchasing grain through this fake silver and gold]Thereafter all those who prepared chemical powders by heating and transmuting copper by projection called their methods "Tanyang techniques".

The late Ming and Ching literature have very little information about paktong. However, it is first mentioned specifically by name in the Thien Kung Khai Wu of circa 1637:
When lu kan shih (zinc carbonate, calamine) or wo chhein (zinc metal) is mixed and combined with chih thung (copper), one gets 'yellow bronze' (ordinary brass). When phi shang and other arsenic substances are heated with it, one gets 'white bronze' or white copper: pai thong. When alum and niter and other chemicals are mixed together one gets ching thung: green bronze.

Ko Hung of the 300 CE stated:" The Tanyang copper was created by throwing a mercuric elixir into Tanyang copper and heated- gold will be formed." However, the Pha Phu Tsu and the Shen I Ching describing a statue in the Western provinces as being of silver, tin, lead and Tanyang copper- which looked like gold, and could be forged for plating and inlaying vessels and swords.

Needham et al. argue that cupro-nickel was at least known as a unique alloy by the Chinese during the reign of Liu An in 120 BCE in Yunnan. Moreover the Yunnanese State of Tien was founded in 334 BCE as a colony of the Chu. Most likely modern paktong was unknown to Chinese of the day- but thenaturally occurring Yunnan ore upro-nickek alloy was likely a valuable internal trade commodity.

Western re-discovery

The alloy seems to have been re-discovered by the West during alchemy experiments, notably Anrdreas Libavius, in his Alchemia of 1597 where he mentions a surface-whitened copper aes album by mercury or silver, but in De Natura Metallorum in Singalarum Part 1, of 1599 the same term was applied to '"tin" from the East Indies (modern-day Indonesiamarker and the Philippinesmarker) and given the Spanish nam: tintinaso.

Bishop Watson of Cambridge appears to be the first to discover cupro-nickel was an alloy of three metals. In attempting to re-discover the secret of white-copper critiqued du Halde's History of China (1688) confusing the term paktong', Bishop Watson noted the Chinese of his day did not form it as an alloy, but smelt readily available unprocessed ore:
appeared from a vast series of experiments made at Peking- that it occurred naturally as an ore mined at the region, the most extraordinary copper is pe-tong or white copper: it is white when dug out of the mine and even more white within than without. It appears , by a vast number of experiments made at Peking, that its colour is owing to no mixture; on the contrary, all mixtures diminish its beauty, for, when it is rightly managed it looks exactly like silver and were there not a necessity of mixing a little tutenag or such metal to soften it, it would be so much more the extraordinary as this sort of copper is found no where but in China and that only in the Province of Yunnan". Notwithstanding what is here said, of the colour of the copper being owing to no mixture, it is certain the Chinese white copper as brought to us, is a mixt [sic: mixed] metal; so that the ore from which it was extracted must consist of various metallic substances; and from such ore that the natural orichalum if it ever existed, was made".

During the peak European importation of Chinese white-copper during 1750 to 1800, increased attention was made to its discovering its' constituents- Peat and Cookson found that: "the darkest proved to contain 7.7% nickel and the lightest said to be indistinguishable from silver with a characteristic bell-like resonance when struck and considerable resistance to corrosion, 11.1%".

Another trial by Fyfe estimated the nickel content at 31.6%.Guesswork ended when a Dr Dinwiddie of the Macartney Embassy of 1793 brought back, at considerable personal risk (smuggling of paktong ore was a capital crime by the Chinese Emperor) some of the ore from which paktong was made.Cupro-nickel was now widely understood and published by E.Thomason, in 1823, in his submission later rejected for not being new knowledge to the Royal Society of Arts.

Efforts to duplicate exactly the Chinese paktong failed in Europe due to a general lack of requisite complex cobalt-nickel-arsenic naturally-occurring ore.However, the Schneeburg district of Germanymarker, where the famous Blaufarbenwerke made cobalt blue and other pigments solely held the requisite complex cobalt-nickel-arsenic ores in Europe.

At the same time the Prussian Verein zur Beförderung des Gewerbe flessies ("Society for the Promotion of Flask Industry") offered a prize for the mastery of the process and unsurprisingly, Dr E.A Geitner and J.R von Gersdoff of Schneeburg duly won the prize and launched their German silver under the trade name Argentan and Neusilber ("new Silver")

In 1829, Percival Norton Johnston persuaded Dr Geitner to establish a foundry in Bow Common behind Regents' Park Canal in London and obtained ingots of nickel-silver of 18% Ni, 55% Cu and 27% Zn.

Between 1829 and 1833- Percival Norton Johnson was the first man to refine cupro-nickel on the British Isles: and became a wealthy man producing in excess of 16.5 tonnes per year, mainly made into cutlery by the Birminghammarker firm William Hutton and sold under the trade-name "Argentine".

Johnsons' most serious competitor, Charles Askin and Brok Evans, under the brilliant chemist Dr. EW Benson devised greatly improved methods of cobalt and nickel suspension and marketed their own brand of nickel-silver: British Plate.


In Europe, Switzerland pioneered the nickel billion coinage in 1850, with the addition of silver. In 1879, Switzerland adopted the far cheaper 75:25 copper to nickel ratio then being used by the Belgiansmarker the United Statesmarker and Germanymarker.

Cupro-nickel was not used again in coinage until the 19th century. Cupro-nickel is the cladding on either side of United Statesmarker Half Dollars (50¢) since 1971, and all quarters (25¢) and dimes (10¢) made after 1965. Currently some circulating coins like the United States Jefferson Nickel (5¢), the Swiss franc, and the South Koreanmarker 500 won are made of solid cupro-nickel (75/25 ratio).

Marine engineering grades

By the 1920s, a 70-30 copper-nickel grade was developed for naval condensers. Soon afterwards, a 2% manganese and 2% iron alloy was also developed for a UK power station which needed better erosion resistance because the levels of entrained sand in the seawater. A 90-10 alloy first became available in the 1950s, initially for seawater piping, and is now the more widely used alloy.

The alloys are:

UNS Standard Compositions* of wrought alloys. Maximum or Range

 UNS No.
Common name Nickel Iron Manganese Copper
C70600 90-10 9-11 1-1.8 1 Remainder
C71500 70-30 29-33 0.4-1.0 1 Remainder
C71640 66-30-2-2 29-32 1.7-2.3 1.5-2.5 Remainder

  • These values may vary in other standards

There are subtle differences in corrosion resistance and strength which determine which alloy is selected. Descending the table, the maximum allowable flow rate in piping increases as does the strength.

Typical minimum mechanical properties and maximum velocities

Copper Nickel Alloy Yield Strength N/mm2 Tensile strength N/mm2 Typical Max. velocity at 100mm piping bore diameter, m/s
90-10 105 125 3.5
70-30 275 358 4.0
66-30-2-2 170 435 6.0
In seawater, the alloys have excellent corrosion rates which remain low as long as the maximum design flow velocity is not exceeded. This velocity depends on geometry and pipe diameter. They have high resistance to crevice corrosion, stress corrosion cracking and hydrogen embrittlement that can be troublesome to other alloy systems. Copper-nickels naturally form a thin protective surface layer over the first several weeks of exposure to seawater and this provides its on-going resistance. Additionally, they have a high inherent biofouling resistance to attachment by macrofoulers ( e.g. seagrasses and molluscs) living in the seawater. To use this property to its full potential, the alloy needs to be free of the effects or insulated from any form of cathodic protection.

However, copper-nickels can show high corrosion rates in polluted or stagnant seawater when sulfides or ammonia are present. It is important therefore to avoid exposure to such conditions particularly during commissioning and refit while the surface films are maturing. Ferrous sulfate dosing to sea water systems can provide improved resistance.

As copper and nickel alloy with each other easily and have simple structures, the alloys are ductile and readily fabricated. Strength and hardness for each individual alloy is increased by cold working; they are not hardened by heat treatment. Joining of 90-10 (C70600) and 70-30 (C71500) is possible by both welding or brazing. They are both weldable by the majority of techniques although autogenous (welding without weld consumables) or oxy-acetylene methods are not recommended. 70-30 rather than 90-10 weld consumables are normally preferred for both alloys and no post-weld heat treatment is required. They can also be welded directly to steel providing a 65% nickel-copper weld consumable is used to avoid iron dilution effects. Brazing requires appropriate silver-base brazing alloys. The C71640 alloy tends to be used as seamless tubing and expanded rather than welded into the tube plate.

The Asperida nearing 40 years old; its 70-30 copper-nickel hull is being inspected before being refitted.
Applications for copper-nickels have withstood the test of time as they are still widely used and range from seawater system piping, condensers and heat exchangers in naval vessels, commercial shipping, multi-stage flash desalination and power stations. They have also been used as splash zone cladding on offshore structures and protective cladding on boat hulls as well as for solid hulls themselves.

Other usage

Single-core thermocouple cables use a single conductor pair of thermocouple conductors such as iron-constantan, copper constantan or nickel-chromium/nickel-aluminium. These have the heating element of constantan or nickel-chromium alloy within a sheath of copper, cupro-nickel or stainless steel.

Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, bullet jackets were commonly made from this material. It was soon replaced with gilding metal to reduce metal fouling in the bore.

Currently, cupronickel remains the basic material for silver-plated cutlery. It is commonly used for mechanical and electrical equipment, medical equipment, zippers, jewelry items, and as material for strings for string instruments.

For side-arms (pistols), nickel is the favoured metal for the trigger. For high-quality cylinder lock and locking systems, the cylinder core is made from wear-resistant cupronickel.

Physical properties

Cupro-nickel (70/30 ratio) melts at 1170 °C and has a density of 8,910 kg/m3 (0.322 lbs/cu in).

Nickel silver is most commonly defined as a shiny silver white alloy of 45-70% copper, 5-30% nickel, 8-45% zinc, possibly with the incorporation of trace elements such as lead, tin or iron. The nickel content gives the alloy its special hardness and corrosion resistance.


  1. Deutsches Kupfer-Institut (Hrsg.): Kupfer-Nickel-Zink-Legierungen. Berlin 1980.
  2. Ancient Chinese weapons and A halberd of copper-nickel alloy, from the Warring States Period.
  3. Copper-Nickel coinage in Greco-Bactria.
  4. Joseph Needham, Ling Wang, Gwei-Djen Lu, Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Dieter Kuhn, Peter J Golas, Science and civilisation in China: Cambridge University Press: 1974, ISBN 0521085713, 510 pages: pp: 237-250
  5. Joseph Needham, Ling Wang, Gwei-Djen Lu, Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Dieter Kuhn, Peter J Golas, Science and civilisation in China: Cambridge University Press: 1974, ISBN 0521085713, 510 pages: pp: 237-250
  6. Mcneil I Staff, Ian McNeil Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology: Routledge: 2002: ISBN 0203192117: pp98
  7. Robert Monro Black, The history of electric wires and cables Science Museum (Great Britain), IET: 1983 ISBN 0863410014: 290 pages: pp161
  9. Copper & Alloys Products

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