The global copper mining industry, of which Australia is a major player, faces a major challenge in being more innovative, according to a United States expert.
Washington DC-based director of technology development and transfer to the international copper association, Hal Stillman, voiced these concerns at the Copper to the World conference in Adelaide today.
The need for increased innovation revolves around predictions made at the conference that copper use is set to double in the next 20 years, forcing a rethink of how deep miners will need to go, and how to extract the material.
Stillman told delegates that developing new and reliable industrial technology required “a lot of time and financial investment” to reduce risks and assure performance.
“That is not a simple task in copper mining which has seen only a few major changes in extraction and processing,” he said.
“And it is an urgent problem. The world is demanding more and more copper but is also demanding that the mineral’s commercialisation be greener, cleaner and smarter, with minimal impact on the environment.”
International Copper Association Australia chief executive John Fennell said the converging demand and mining technique challenges were driving an emerging vision of just how copper deposits might be mined in the future.
“We are talking automated mines at least two kilometres deep, urban high tech control hubs, armies of sensors, robot machines and all powered by clean energy,” he said.
“Most of the world’s largest operating mines are more than 75 years old, in addition, ore levels keep dropping, however, demand keeps rising. Copper use will be 26 million tonnes a year by 2040, double what it is today.”
Fennell emphasised that this meant miners would need to get “more from less” which could involve sending them deeper than they have gone before and into riskier, harder to access areas.
Stillman pointed to the $65 million Aurus III venture fund as the only fund solely focused on copper mining innovation.
The Aurus III was established in Santiago, Chile in 2015 to provide funding to start-ups and new tech companies interested in developing technologies that will benefit the copper industry.
Stillman said before closing this year, fund managers met with over 480 companies, entrepreneurs and start-ups, selected 41 for further evaluation and invested in 10.
Some of those selected include ‘Aquamarina’, which focuses on soil stabilisation through biomineralisation and ‘Scarab Recovery Technologies’, which is centred on recovering valuable materials from tailings.
“If a mining company were to implement several of (these) emerging technologies… the results, aside from the profitability bump, would be dramatic and valuable,” Stillman said.
“These would include 50 per cent less tailings, 45 per cent less grind energy and 35 per cent less water for the same amount of copper.”
South Australia enjoys a strong global copper reputation as it is home to around one third of Australia’s total annual copper output.
It holds around two thirds of the country’s known copper reserves, with significant new mining capacity coming to market from late this year.
Today’s conference at the Adelaide Convention Centre is the third held by South Australia’s department for energy and mining.
It comes at a time where market recognition is turning to copper, given the increasing transition to electric vehicles and alternative energy and storage infrastructure.