The Next Stage of Technology Development for the Copper Industry
Copper production will need to increase significantly over the next decade considering the demand predictions by analysts. Where that copper comes from is still an open question that will need to be answered sooner then later.
On one hand, there is a large pipeline of greenfield and brownfield projects that could increase the supply of copper. On the other hand, there is an increasing amount of political, social, environmental, and technical hurdles that is creating a situation where projects are barely advancing. Some projects will be built but many more will never reach the construction stage. Whether it is enough production at the right time is yet to be seen.
Making the situation even more difficult is that existing mines are facing pressures due to declining ore grades. There was a time when most copper miners were working with higher-grade ore that contained 2-3% copper and now miners often work with concentrations of just 0.5%. The result is that greater quantities of ore must be processed to extract the same amount of copper. For miners, this means increasing energy and water usage at a time when copper producers are trying to decarbonize their operations and deal with water shortages.
Mckinsey released a report in February 2023 that outlined their belief that new processing technologies could possibly help meet the supply shortfall. Specifically, they believe coarse particle recovery, sulfide leaching, and process optimization with machine learning—has the potential to close a significant portion of that supply-demand gap.
Mckinsey Report Overview – Bridging the Copper Supply Gap.
The report outlines three technological developments that are being adopted and scaled sufficiently enough across the industry that they can make a significant dent in the future supply gap – coarse particle recovery, sulfide leaching, and process optimization with machine learning.
Course Particle Recovery
Conventional sulfide flotation circuits are most effective at recovering copper when they are within a specific size range. Outside of that range and recoveries fall off. To date, most improvements have been focused on improving the grinding process to ensure that more of the recoverable metal falls within the critical range that can be recovered.
The authors believe two technologies could improve Course Particle Recovery –
- Grind-Circuit Rroughing – Cidra’s P29 system could help recover particles directly from the grind circuit. This could reduce the recirculating load in ball mills allowing for plants to increase ball mill throughput by as much as 20 percent at a constant grind size. The benefit is that along with increasing production, it will also reduce energy consumption.
- Coarse particle scavenging focuses on extending the range of particle sizes during flotation by adding equipment to the end of the circuit. For example, Eriez’s HydroFloat system works by introducing layers within the cells that prevent the coarser particles from sinking, thereby improving their chances of recovery during the flotation stage. This is supposed to improve recovery by 2 to 6 percent but depends on many factors.
The benefit of both technologies is that miners will save on energy and water while maintaining the same production. It will also open new opportunities such as reprocessing old tailings facilities or extending the life of mines. For greenfield projects, it would offer the possibility to save on capital costs by reducing the grind-circuit requirements.
Cidra is already deployed across mine sites in Chile and Peru. The company has done well in the region and is expanding. Eriez HydroFloat system was being tested at Anglos El Soldado copper mine in Chile, the first in the world to deploy the technology. Both technologies offer significant advantages for South American copper miners who need to increase recoveries while improving water and energy usage.
Sulfide leaching can be applied to primary-sulfide ore bodies where it can be used to recover copper from material that is currently below mill head grade and considered waste in traditional flotation-based systems.
There are several technologies competing in this space. One is Rio Tinto’s Nuton system which is a chloride-based solution that focuses on “bioleaching”. The second example is Jetti Resources, who is using catalyst-based system to leach primary sulfides. There are others but these two are recieivng media attention as of late.
Rio Tinto’s strategy with its Nuton technology is focused on greenfield mine development where environmental benefits and lower capital requirements can be more cost effective compared with conventional sulfide flotation. The company has already invested in McEwen Mining upcoming Argentina project – Los Azules.
Jetti has reached an agreement with the El Abra copper mine in Chile, majority-owned and operated by Freeport. Jetti’s catalytic technology will be deployed on the existing leach stockpiles at El Abra and will target over 20 MIb/y (9,072 t/y) of incremental copper cathode production after an initial ramp-up period.
Process Optimization with Machine Learning
The goal of plant operators is to maintain the optimal plant configuration to recover the most metal. This can be a challenge in an environment where ore being fed into the processing plant can change depending on a host of factors.
Traditionally, adjusting the plant configuration was the province of plant metallurgists, who drew on a combination of academic study, professional experience, and knowledge of the specific ore body. As with any human-controlled process, human factors exert significant influence on outcomes, which sometimes resulted in not only excellence but also lost production due to suboptimal decision making.”
Machine learning can be used to ensure the plant is operating at the upper range of its capabilities. Mckinsey believes machine learning can add 2 to 4 percent to metal recoveries and 5 to 15 percent to throughput.
Codelco stated last year that AI was being used at its Chuquicamata mine which led to adding 8,000 metric tons to production which increased annual profit by $80 million. The machine learning system being used by the mine was not mentioned by name, but it was assisting Codelco by optimizing processing through, for example, the use of blending.
In terms of specfic suppliers in this space, companies such as Intellisense are picking up traction in the region and doing some incredible work with miners in Latin America. Their system helps miners optimize grinders, thickeners, flotation, etc.
Technology will play an important role in terms of helping the world to meet future copper demand. It is not a magic bullet but developments like the ones mentioned in the Mckinsey report could help miners improve productivity, reduce inputs such as water and electricity, and open new opportunities to process ore bodies that would not be economical otherwise.
These technologies are particularly important in Chile and Peru where local operations are dealing with lower ore grades, water scarcity, and a push to use renewable energy. In many ways, South America is ground zero for the next stage of technology that will be used to increase production and meet future copper demand.
Ax Legal is an advisory firm that works with foreign companies in Latin America. Our team of legal and commercial advisors have a distinguished track record of helping foreign technology and services companies to grow and operate in Latin America. Over the years, we have worked with starts up, mid-size businesses, and publicly listed companies. The one common factor that connects our clients is that they are leaders in their field, providing innovative technologies and services to the industrial sectors.
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