Road-mapping demonstrates value in copper investment

New technologies for finding and accessing copper resources will dominate discussion at Adelaide’s Copper to the World conference in June.

International Copper Association (Australia) chief executive officer John Fennell says there’s no danger that global demand for copper will decline any time soon.

The International Copper Association (ICA) is the pre-eminent marketing organisation of the global copper industry, representing major mining companies around the world as part of its international arm while smaller Australian mining companies are part of ICA locally but may not be part of the global organisation.

Australian chief executive officer Fennell says the ICA’s recent ‘technology roadmap’ indicated that four factors will ensure demand remains high around the developing world, and particularly in key markets in China and across Asia.

“Mining companies around the world recognise that this demand will continue,” Fennell says. “That’s why Rio Tinto, BHP and others are making big investments in mines around the world.

“One of the challenges for new mines is that it’s incumbent upon the companies to work with local communities, environmental authorities, water boards and other entities to produce environmentally sustainable ways of operating.

“It means that to develop a new mine, it used to take five to seven years; now it takes 12 to 15 years to obtain approvals. They really need to know that markets will be looking for their product by the time they will be able to deliver it.”

As participants at the Copper to the World conference will hear, the ICA has recently undertaken a lot of work to ‘roadmap’ and understand major trends that will affect copper demand in the future, and the technology that will underpin these trends. Fennell says the work unearthed four major areas in which copper supplies will be critical, in China and elsewhere.

“As the world looks to electric vehicles to replace those driven by internal combustion, copper will be in demand: electric vehicles have four times the copper as those driven by internal combustion engines,” he says. “Similarly, the more energy-efficient washing machines and other appliances that consumers now ask for have much more copper in them than the traditional versions.

“The third factor is the increasing reliance on renewable energy; it takes four times as much copper to generate a kilowatt capacity of power from a wind, geothermal or solar source than from a coal-fired source.

“And as people in China, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian nations continue to flock from rural areas to urban centres, they are using six times as much copper in their homes.”

So, Fennell says, there’s no indication the demand for copper will decline any time in the next 15 to 25 years.

Mining companies will continue to search for new mines, he says, but in doing so they face issues that weren’t a concern 50 or 100 years ago, when miners found copper oxide close to the surface.

Then, it was relatively easy to scrape back the dirt and start mining. But mines are becoming harder to find, and they’re getting deeper. New air-mapping technology is helping companies pinpoint likely targets within areas such as South Australia’s vast, still largely unexplored Gawler Craton.

They’re having to go deep, too: in Arizona, for example, Rio Tinto is mining two kilometres underground. When you go down one to two kilometres, there are new challenges.

There is the process of lifting the ore to the surface; with copper making up only 0.5 per cent of the ore, 200 tonnes has to be lifted to gain one tonne of copper. So new technologies such as block-cave technology are being developed and tested to access copper and to process the ore underground.

But the depth also contributes to the second issue, one that is an increasing challenge as companies go deeper: the health of their workers. Temperatures at two kilometres can reach nearly 80 degrees Celsius, for example. The result is increasing use of autonomous vehicles, drones and robotics to do the work that humans cannot do in such spaces over long periods.

“These technological innovations are phenomenal,” says Fennell. “The Copper to the World conference is allowing some of our biggest, most innovative members – BHP, Anglo American, Newcrest, OZ Minerals and ICA America among them – to share some of the new technologies being developed. Some are major discoveries and others are incremental steps – they’ll be shared, discussed, talked about, among mining companies, suppliers and others with roles in the sector.”

Fennell says it makes a lot of sense to stage the conference in South Australia, which has 65 per cent of Australia’s known copper reserves and where annual production is around 270,000 tonnes – and where the government’s long-sighted growth plan has set an ambitious target of one million tonnes a year by 2030.

The third copper conference comes as OZ Minerals’ Carrapateena project is about to begin operating, and BHP has just announced a strong March quarter, with production at Olympic Dam increasing to more than 50,000 tonnes and drilling commencing at Oak Dam, 65 km southeast of Olympic Dam, to define the extent of mineralisation.

“South Australian copper exports today are worth $A2 billion to the state economy,” Fennell says. “If production reaches that one-million tonne mark, that’s $A9.5 billion in today’s dollars. The impact on South Australia is very, very significant.

“This conference is sharing ideas to enable companies involved to improve their sustainability and environmental footprint, to run safer mines for workers, and to capitalise on data, robotics, artificial intelligence to operate at lower cost – and, for local mining companies and suppliers, to contribute to that growth.

“From an ICA point of view, we’re happy to bring our Australian members together to talk about the challenges they have faced and progress they have achieved in mining copper, and share their experiences with the industry.”

The Copper to the World Conference is being staged in Adelaide on 18 June, after masterclasses and a welcome reception are held on 17 June. For information and to register, go to the South Australian Department for Energy and Mining’s conference website.

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