Sep 21

Why Copper Mining Must Clean Up Its Act

Editorial Staff
Aug 16, 2022
Image: Ra Dragon via Unsplash

If the UN forges ahead with its target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, minerals will become an increasingly valuable resource. As the world seeks to switch from a fuel-intensive energy system to a mineral-intensive one, copper wiring, capacitors, and electric motors will play an important role.

A recent study by S&P Global finds that, to meet net-zero emissions by 2050, “copper demand will double by 2035 and continue to grow thereafter” as copper-based infrastructure springs up to support the electrification of the economy.

In a separate report, the World Bank concluded that “a low-carbon future will be very mineral intensive because clean energy technologies need more materials than fossil-fuel-based electricity generation technologies.”

Current exploration trends and existing projects are not capable of meeting this projected demand. The world will need new mines to supply the  copper that is necessary for the renewable energy transition, in addition to a huge increase in the recycling of recovered copper.

In order to avoid contributing to the problem they are intended to solve, these new mines must minimise the impact of their mining activities on the environment. Fortunately, there are examples of established copper mines striving to minimise their emissions and positively impact local communities. New projects must follow best practice from their greenest peers if copper mining is to remain a part of the solution to climate change.

The metal of electrification

Copper will play a particularly crucial role in two aspects of the green transition: the electrification of transport and the improvement of power grids. Copper’s conductivity and malleability make it the ideal component for most electrical wiring, and few realistic substitutes have been found with comparable efficiency.

In electric vehicles, copper is used predominantly in internal wiring (the average car contains between 30 and 50 computers), in battery packs, and in electric motors. If trucks and lorries are to go electric, they will require a particularly large amount of copper for powerful battery capacitors.

Charging infrastructure will also need to scale up as the transport fleet is electrified. Most chargers for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) require between 1 – 4.5 kg of copper, depending on the amount of time it takes to charge the vehicle.

Along with charging infrastructure is the need to improve power distribution. Currently, energy is lost through inefficiency in the grid, and it will need to be vastly scaled up to support more electric infrastructure.

Copper is needed in particularly great quantity for transformers as well as for underground and underwater lines. Global investments in power transmission and distribution are expected to reach $750bn by 2040.

In a recent report entitled Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050, the United States laid out specific goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It plans to reach 50% zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales by 2030 and 100% clean electricity by 2035 (including carbon capture and storage).

Copper is also a critical material for renewable energy generation, including solar panels and offshore wind – which consume 2 and 5 times more copper per megawatt, respectively, relative to conventional fossil fuel-based power generation methods.

Moreover, copper ore deposits often contain other minerals which will be important in the energy transition, such as cobalt, molybdenum and nickel, all of which can be obtained as by-products of copper mining.

In total, S&P Global estimates that demand for refined copper will almost double from just over 25 mmt (million metric tons) in 2021 to nearly 49 mmt in 2035, with energy transition technologies accounting for about half of the growth in demand.

Source: S&P Global

Red gold going green

In order to meet this increasing demand, new mining projects are needed around the world. S&P’s report into copper supply concludes that “substitution and recycling will not be enough to meet the demands of electric vehicles (EVs), power infrastructure, and renewable generation. Unless massive new supply comes online in a timely way, the goal of Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 will be short-circuited and remain out of reach.”

The good news is that the world is relatively well endowed with copper resources, and their extraction need not be hugely damaging to the environment. Indeed, some mines are already beginning to embrace greener methods to minimise their carbon emissions.

Productivity can be increased using mine planning and optimisation systems that harness the power of data analytics and simulations; precision automated drill rigs can minimise waste rock movement and blasting dilution, while autonomous vehicles and robotic command and control technologies can maximise fuel efficiency and operational productivity.

Chilean state-owned mining giant Codelco is among the companies aiming to produce more sustainable copper. The company, which is responsible for 10% of global output, has invested in automation of its operations and fleets, and struck a deal with Sandvik to use predictive analytics and automated loaders to maximise the efficiency of its underground operations. By 2023, it is predicted that more than half of the Chilean mining industry’s use of electricity will come from renewable sources.

Chile’s BHP is also investing in “green” methods of copper extraction. Most notably, it is processing material reclaimed from waste streams. The company is also harnessing data analytics technology to minimise supply chain emissions, and has introduced a desalinisation plant to produce freshwater rather than drawing excessively on local reserves.

Russia’s Udokan Copper – which is planning to launch a new site in Russia’s Far East near the border with China next year – has announced plans to reduce its carbon footprint by as much as 75% by 2035. Udokan is one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, and will produce up to 135,000 tonnes of copper per year when the first stage of the plant opens.

Udokan Copper will use renewable and low-carbon generation sources, such as solar and hydropower energy, to reduce indirect Scope 2 emissions. The company is also considering developing and using its own renewable energy generation to power its operations, and may also electrify its existing fleet of vehicles, it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s Gunnison Copper Mine, which is owned by Excelsior, claims to be one of the least water-intensive copper mining operations in the world. It recycles water for mineral extraction and uses an on-site water treatment facility to further decrease consumption. When Gunnison is fully opened, its average water consumption per pound of copper is estimated to be around 6.2 gallons, a tenth of the amount consumed by some rival American copper mines.

Gunnison also plans to eliminate acid mine drainage and scarring of the landscape through mine closure plans which will allow the land to be re-used for any purpose.

Next steps

In order to make copper mining truly sustainable though, more needs to be done. Innovative technology is being developed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, and it must be adopted at speed.

Emerging membrane technology for copper mining could create the potential for huge economies of resources. The technology would valorise aqueous copper mining waste streams to ensure that as much copper as possible is extracted from mined ore. AI sensors and smart machinery already exist, and have a demonstrable impact on emissions reduction.

Technologies like this could help mines, too: they would make it easier to meet new regulatory thresholds and contribute to the industry’s social licence to operate. Long-term investments and rapid uptake of technological innovations is critical.

The same is true of technologies which use copper. Electric vehicle manufacturers and other end users must ensure that copper intensity per product decreases so that the precious mineral isn’t wasted and any emissions aren’t in vain.

Governments, meanwhile, should introduce stricter requirements and higher penalties for environmental issues, particularly water consumption and carbon emissions. As carbon credits become common currency, governments must find a system which is fair to all parties and takes into account the needs of different countries.

There is no “golden bullet” when it comes to copper mining. The increase in supply which the world will need to meet its carbon reduction targets must be achieved with the participation of all stakeholders: consumers, manufacturers, legislators, and the local communities affected by operations. Perhaps one day, “mining” need not necessarily be a dirty word.

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