SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Copper socks? Copper towels? How about copper subway poles? These are only a few of the uses Chile, the world's biggest copper producer, is applying to the red metal now used more in the construction and auto sectors.
Used since ancient times to make tools, weapons and even plumbing systems, investigators are experimenting in Chile with new ways to use the metal and exploit its bacteria- and fungus-fighting characteristics.
"Public transport systems, where germs can be transmitted and there are large numbers of people, there is a potential market for applications for surface-metal copper," said Jurgen Leibbrandt, head of market development for the Chilean state copper giant Codelco.
"In clothes there is another venue ... where it has excellent anti-fungus qualities," he said.
Codelco is already working with the private sector to market socks, towels, pillow cases and even underwear sewn with copper fibers that fight fungi and even help combat acne.
And the private sector is in a drive to join Chile's leading export, copper, with the salmon industry, another of its next best known exports, to cut disease in fish stocks.
Chile is the world's second largest salmon producer after Norway, but the industry has high costs because of expensive solutions to controlling infections.
"Joining these two industries to finding a solution that is economically viable is certainly viable," said Leibbrandt.
Manufacturers say copper has properties that kill bacteria and reduce threats of infections.
One Chilean entrepreneur, Joaquin Ruiz, has invented copper sponge filters to be used to purify water used on salmon farms to eliminate disease and fungi, and reduce the use of large amounts of costly antibiotics currently employed to do the same job.
"That means huge savings. Instead of using large quantities of antibiotics and germ killing agents, with this you are just putting up a simple sanitary barrier," Ruiz, the developer of the Metal Foam sponges, told Reuters.
Codelco is experimenting with bacteria-repellant cages for the industry.
Investigators are also looking where they can use the metal to reduce levels of infection in hospitals and they have found the metal helps to kill Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium responsible for difficult-to-treat infections in humans.
"If you prevent one MRSA infection, you save $21,000, so your return on investment will be very very short, perhaps one patient," said Michael Schmidt, of the University of South Carolina medical school.
"So this is going to be a fairly efficient and inexpensive solution to combat infections."
(Reporting by Manuel Farias; writing by Pav Jordan)