Shared facility may be copper’s future

Mining expert Terry Burgess leads an esteemed panel on the pros and cons of a common use copper smelter.

A smelter and refinery to be shared among South Australian copper companies is an idea with significant potential benefits.

A ‘common use facility’ in regional South Australia could transform the sector in Australia and the capacity of mining companies to predict and control their operations.

South Australian mining consultant Terry Burgess says the idea of a common use facility arose at a workshop session where miners, service providers and other players in the copper industry were encouraged to offer any and all suggestions, no matter how inventive. The concept of a ‘common use facility’ – a treatment plant including smelting and refining capabilities that any local mining company could use – was one of many scribbled on post-it notes.

Months later, and Burgess says the idea has been tossed around often enough that it is now likely to be the focus of frequent conversations at the Copper to the World Conference in Adelaide on June 18, both during formal presentations and panel sessions and over drinks.

Burgess knows copper. He has led Adelaide-based OZ Minerals, is a former head of business development copper division for Anglo American in London, and was managing director and head of metals and mining for ABN AMRO Bank in Sydney and Amsterdam.

He doesn’t want to say too much about the ‘common use’ concept before the conference; he’s hoping ideas and suggestions germinate during the forum, rather than have people come with preconceived thoughts and criticisms. However, he does say that he believes that such a facility could have enormous advantages for South Australian companies.

First, he says, instead of exporting copper concentrate, Australian-based miners would be producing and exporting copper metal, which he says would give them an advantage over competitors.

Second, they would avoid being at the mercy of the vagaries of overseas markets and fluctuating conditions such as sudden changes in trading alliances, tariffs or policies relating to what a jurisdiction will or will not allow to arrive on its shores. In short, they will gain more control and reduce the unpredictability in the process.

In broader terms, the establishment of a common use facility in South Australia would demonstrate to the world that in Australia, mining companies are ready and able to think innovatively and act accordingly.

Discussions at the conference are likely to consider where such a treatment plant could be located, Burgess says. It must be at a nexus of appropriate road, rail and port infrastructure, for example. It will have to be able to take account of the many important factors which miners address: environmental footprints, access and use of water, waste disposal, and energy efficiency. And it will have to consider the requirement for extensive community engagement, and how that affects models, processes and timeframes.

Burgess is excited about what will emerge during discussion at the conference of questions such as size and scale – will it be something where operators process locally mined copper, or could foreign miners bring their concentrate to South Australia?

He’ll be joined by panel members Ray Shaw, a CSIRO smelting technology expert and inventor, Jacqui McGill, a metallurgist whose executive career culminated with the leadership of Olympic Dam for BHP and Ian Dover, acting chief executive officer of METS Ignited, whose early career was as a process metallurgist before a later transition into manufacturing and ICT.

Simon Corrigan, director of Cannings Purple, will bring a stakeholder engagement perspective. The panel will address how the facility will capitalise on and even lead the use of drones, robotics, artificial intelligence and other technology. And the obvious question: who would pay for it?

“If this facility happens,” he says, “it can’t be an old-fashioned smelting facility. This will be something different, something that has to address all the issues and operate for many years; that will have to meet existing and future standards and predict and adapt to what the world needs.”

Independent mining expert Terry Burgess is chairing the ‘Innovation and Engagement’ panel session at the Copper to the World Conference in Adelaide on June 18. For information and to register, go to the South Australian Department for Energy and Mining’s conference website.

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