It’s often said necessity is the mother of invention. If there was ever a time for something new to pop up for the copper industry, it’s now.
We’ve heard reports of an upcoming copper shortage for years, thanks to a combination of higher demand, lower supply, and new renewable initiatives. Unfortunately, any scarcity of the reddish metal could leave industries scrambling. Copper is ubiquitous, from computers, smartphones, and fitness gear to electric vehicles, solar panels, and electrical wiring.
Long story short, a copper shortage would have a debilitating global impact.
Copper demand is growing and likely won’t slow until well into the 2030s.
The reddish metal has been a mainstay for thousands of years. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), about 700 million metric tons (MMt) of copper has been produced globally, with another 2.1 billion metric tons identified.
In 2021, the world produced just under 25 MMt of copper. However, the need is expected to rise as high as 53 MMt in 2050, according to research from S&P Global. Unfortunately, it takes years to open a mine, and recycling efforts still need to improve to reduce expected shortfalls.
This is where emerging technology might be able to step in and make a difference.
According to Fortune, about 43 million tons of copper have been mined but not processed over the last decade. This equates to about $2 trillion in unprocessed material.
For years, mines have accessed and processed high-grade copper deposits. But lower-grade ore is expensive and sometimes difficult to process, so it’s left behind in waste rock dumps or untouched in underground deposits. Traditionally, getting leftover copper out of primary sulfide deposits like chalcopyrite has relied on two options – one is expensive, the other somewhat ineffective.
During pyrometallurgical processing, the effort and cost associated with crushing and heating the ore to extract the copper are high, making it cost-prohibitive for low-grade copper ore.
The other method, called hydrometallurgical processing, is a more affordable option for releasing copper from ore. Unfortunately, this process is ineffective because a passivation layer prevents leaching chemicals from reaching the copper.
Since neither option is ultimately feasible for mining companies, millions of tons of copper have sat untouched… until now.
Colorado-based Jetti Resources has recently become a popular name in the copper industry because of its new copper mining technology.
The company partnered with the University of British Columbia to develop a chemical catalyst that eats through the passivation layer surrounding low-grade copper ore more efficiently than pyrometallurgical processing. By breaking down the protective layer surrounding the ore, the copper can be oxidized and extracted.
According to Jetti, more than 70% of global copper reserves are trapped inside low-grade ore, leaving them untouched for years. Unlocking these resources could make the entire copper mining process more efficient by getting more production from the same amount of effort.
The technology is promising, and honestly, a breakthrough in copper mining production would be the first in decades. But what could the future look like?
Jetti believes it could add 8 million tons of copper annually by the 2040s, helping address some of the anticipated 48-50 MMt global demand.
For an industry that relies on getting the most out of its mines, Jetti’s catalytic compound could be a lifesaver. It saves money on operating costs, keeps mines running longer, and significantly increases copper production with less environmental risk compared to current methods.
Mining companies also don’t need new equipment to use the catalyst in their operations. It’s added to the current leaching liquid used to extract copper from low-grade primary sulfides, then solvent extraction and electrowinning processes occur as they typically would.
Jetti and its technology have already received investments and backing from several major copper companies, including BHP, Freeport, and Teck Resources, recently raising $100 million in funding.
Copper use is rising globally, but new resource discoveries have declined for a decade.
Since 2017, only three new copper discoveries have been made, accounting for 5.6 Mt, despite annual budgets hovering around $2 billion. The budget is far from the $4.7B spent in 2012 to find new sources, as money has shifted toward getting the most out of existing mines.
“Technology like Jetti’s is vital to future plans. It could add copper to the market, reducing the strain manufacturers and distributors may be experiencing,” says Kris-Tech Supply Chain Director Marcus Tagliaferri. “What remains to be seen is how much low-grade copper the industry can realistically produce and how quickly it can be smelted.”
Smelting is yet another critical fail point in the copper supply chain. Recently, news broke that smelters could not keep up with the current increase in copper production, though several new facilities are slated to come online in the next couple of years. As copper needs increase, miners and smelters must work together to avoid slowdowns and other concerns.
Another potential pitfall lies in the amount of low-grade copper mined and produced. Grade quality in Chile, the world’s largest copper exporter, has fallen precipitously for the last 20 years, and the fear is that copper costs could rise as the grade slips. It costs more to process and refine lower-grade copper, potentially suppressing company profits and causing the price of copper to rise.
Jetti’s possible breakthrough is attractive because it makes processing lower-grade copper less expensive. It is a high-reward, low-risk solution designed to keep costs down compared to pyrometallurgical processing, which is intensive and expensive.
Copper supplies are anticipated to tighten up in the coming years as the world evolves, but the chemical catalyst might be perfect for bridging the gap between supply and demand.
“We’re probably not going to wake up tomorrow to a massive new mine opening up, so we have to make the most of what we have available today,” Tagliaferri explained. “That means developing better recycling processes, smarter mining techniques, and new ways of unlocking copper that we’ve historically avoided, either due to difficulty or price.”
Breakthroughs like the one from Jetti Resources make it possible to capitalize on millions of tons of copper we’ve been leaving in piles or in the ground. The fact that it’s environmentally friendlier than current methods also helps, especially during unprecedented renewable energy investment and growth.
With so much on the line, finding the “next big thing” could be the answer to a trillion-dollar question.
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