Professor Sun Jian and his team of scientist blasted a copper target with a stream of hot, electrically charged argon gas. The fast-moving ionized particles smashed the copper atoms. The atoms cooled and condensed on the surface of a collecting device, producing a thin layer of sand.
South China Morning Post said each grain of sand measured a few nanometers, or a thousandth of the size of a bacterium.
The researchers placed the material in a reaction chamber and used it as a catalyst to turn coal to alcohol, a complex and intricate chemical process that only precious metals can handle efficiently.
"The copper nanoparticles achieved catalytic performance extremely similar to that of gold or silver," Sun said in a statement on Saturday.
"The results … proved that after processing, metal copper can transform from 'chicken' to 'phoenix'," claimed Sun, who was not available for comment.