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Museum-bound copper hits the road

Kennecott metal will be fabricated elsewhere before wrapping building

A special Kennecott Utah Copper "Heavy Metal Tour" began Wednesday, 136,000 pounds strong, some 5,000 miles long and six months in the making.

Sixty-eight tons of copper sheets, extracted from rock taken just two weeks ago from the world-famous, 106-year-old Kennecott open pit mine and then refined, embarked by rail to processing and fabricating stops in Buffalo, N.Y., and Mesa, Ariz.

The final sheets were lifted Wednesday morning onto a Union Pacific railcar, as a drum roll heralded the final minutes of the loading process.

The copper will return to Utah this winter to be installed as a unique copper skin on the new Utah Museum of Natural History building at the Rio Tinto Center, now under construction at the University of Utah Research Park.

This copper is part of a $15 million donation to the new museum, which is on schedule to be finished in early 2011.

Terry Maio, refinery manager for Kennecott, said this is an important milestone between Kennecott and the museum. He said most of its product is usually hidden, but this one won't be.

"We'll see it for a long, long time," he said. "It's an exciting day for all 1,800 employees."

Sarah George, the museum's director, said the copper skin will mimic Utah's geographic beauty, as well as represent its mining heritage.

She also noted that entire Statue of Liberty could be replicated four times with this much copper.

"It's pure copper at this point," she said, stressing this project is a public and private partnership and that Kennecott's support for the museum dates back 30 years.

John Branson, principal at GSBS Architects, said the copper "gives a real life to the building itself" and it will "emulate the geographical stratification" of Utah.

Early in the design process, copper was identified as an attractive material for the building's facade because of its timelessness, durability and strong local significance. The copper bands will be mixed with two types of copper-zinc alloy during their out-of-state tour to enhance the subtle variegation in copper's natural patina.

Over time, the copper on the new building will go from being bright as a penny to a dark brown, and finally to a beautiful Verde finish.

The media was also given a rare tour inside the Kennecott refining plant Wednesday. Refining is the final process for Kennecott, following a complex production cycle that includes mining, concentrating and smelting.

Inside the refining facility, most activities were automated and catwalks and signs stressed safety as a paramount concern. Hard hats, ear plugs and safety goggles were standard-issue here.

"Doesn't this sound like a roller coaster?" Jana Kettering, Kennecott's spokeswoman, said in the center of the facility, which includes the tank house, stripping area, bundling and loading processes.

Nearby, a strong sulphur smell made you wish nose plugs were also required.

Anode molds spend 10 days in an electrolytic cell, where they become 99.99 percent pure copper cathode. This also is where other precious metals are separated from the copper.

Mined out of the Oquirrh Mountains, the rock is blasted and crushed and then carried five miles by underground conveyor to the concentrator. There, copper is separated from the rock and moved 17 miles through a pipeline to the smelter.

There, it is dried, heated to 2,500 degrees and poured into anode molds for delivery to the refinery.

The public can follow the copper for the new museum's fabrication process over the coming months by joining the museum's "Heavy Metal Tour" Facebook group on Twitter at UMNHnewmuseum or by going to www.umnh.utah.edu/newmuseum.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com