NEW YORK: The warnings keep getting louder: the world is hurtling toward a desperate shortage of copper.
Humans are more dependent than ever on a metal we’ve used for 10,000 years; new deposits are drying up, and the type of breakthrough technologies that transformed other commodities have failed to materialise for copper.
In what could prove a game changer for global supply, a US startup says it’s solved a puzzle that has frustrated the mining world for decades. If successful, the discovery by Jetti Resources could unlock millions of tonnes of new copper to feed power grids, building sites and car fleets around the globe, narrowing and possibly even closing the deficit.At its simplest, Jetti’s technology is focused on a common type of ore that traps copper behind a thin film, making it too costly and difficult to extract. The result is that vast quantities of metal have been left stranded over the decades in mine-waste piles on the surface, as well as in untapped deposits. To crack the code, Jetti has developed a specialised catalyst to disrupt the layer, allowing rock-eating microbes to go to work at releasing the trapped copper.
The technology still needs to be proven on a large scale. But the riches at stake are pulling in some of the industry’s most powerful players.
BHP Group, the biggest mining company, is already an investor and has now spent months negotiating for a trial plant at its crown jewel copper mine, Escondida in Chile, according to sources.
US miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc began implementing Jetti’s technology at an Arizona mine this year, while rival Rio Tinto Group is planning to roll out a competing but similar process.
The miners are responding to an increasingly urgent problem. Copper is ubiquitous in the modern world, used in everything from phones and computers to water pipes and cables. And while the global drive to decarbonise is based on phasing out dirty natural resources like oil and coal, an electrified future will need more copper than ever before.
Despite its importance, the world is facing a growing threat of shortages in the coming decades. The best mines are getting old and the few new discoveries are either in difficult places to operate, or face years of opposition to development.
The history of commodity markets shows that looming deficits tend to spur new discoveries and technologies. The US shale boom in the 2010s turned the oil market on its head, while breakthroughs in nickel processing upended supply forecasts.
But new discoveries in copper are increasingly unlikely, given the long history of mining – evidence of copper usage has been traced back to at least 8,000 BC in what is now Turkey and Iraq. That means most of the world’s great deposits have already been found and exploited; more than half the world’s 20 biggest copper mines were discovered more than a century ago.
Yet the long history of copper mining also means there are massive amounts of metal sitting on the surface in waste dumps.
The reason is a principle as old as mining itself: ore is pulled up from the earth, the easiest metal is extracted, and anything too difficult or expensive to process is tossed aside as waste. Over the past decade alone, an estimated 43 million tonnes of copper have been mined but never processed, worth more than US$2 trillion (RM9 trillion) at current prices, creating huge opportunities for anyone who can successfully recover those riches.
To be sure, it’s not a new concept to reprocess mine waste when technology improves or prices rise. But that just hasn’t been feasible for certain types of ore. And the breakthrough has opportunities far beyond waste dumps – there are millions more tonnes still underground that haven’t been viable to mine.
Much depends on mining companies’ willingness to install Jetti’s plants. But if the technology becomes fully embraced by the industry, the company estimates that as much as eight million tonnes of additional copper could be produced each year by the 2040s –more than one third of last year’s total global mine production.
“The industry has accumulated this waste material forever,” said Jetti’s founder and chief executive officer Mike Outwin.
“They’ve been trying to come up with an answer for it on their own for a couple of decades and haven’t been able to.”
So far Jetti’s process has been running on just one mine, at Pinto Valley in Arizona. But the results have been so promising three of the world’s biggest copper miners – including BHP – have bought stakes in the company. Its latest fundraising was at a valuation of US$2.5bil (RM11.2bil).
Copper giant Freeport says it has also “initiated a commercial implementation this year at our Bagdad mine in Arizona to trial the technology and will assess the results and continue to dialogue with Jetti on other opportunities to work together.” — Bloomberg