The sirens are getting louder and louder: the world’s copper shortage is getting worse. Humans have become more dependent on copper, the metal that began to be used 10,000 years ago; new deposits are scarce, but the copper industry has not seen the breakthrough technology that can change the industry like other commodity industries.
Until now, this situation is finally expected to change.
A U.S. start-up says it has solved a problem that has plagued the copper mining industry for decades and could upend the global supply landscape. Jetti Resources’ discovery, if successful, has the potential to add millions of tonnes of copper to the world’s power grids, construction sites and cars, narrowing or even closing a supply gap.
In simple terms, Jetti’s technology focuses on a common ore that has a thin film surrounding copper, making copper more expensive and difficult to purify. As a result, large quantities of copper have been discarded in surface slag dumps for decades, and many copper deposits remain untapped. To solve this conundrum, Jetti developed a special catalyst that breaks down the coating, allowing the rock-eating microbes to release the copper.
Currently, this technology still needs to be verified on a large scale. But its huge potential has attracted some of the biggest players in the industry.
BHP Group, the world’s largest mining company, is already one of Jetti’s investors and has been in talks with the company for months to develop a new project at its most important copper mine, Escondi, Chile, according to people familiar with the matter. Da copper mine, set up a pilot plant. U.S. miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc. began using Jetti’s technology at a copper mine in Arizona this year, while rival Rio Tinto Group plans to rival it with a similar process.
Mining companies are grappling with an increasingly pressing problem. In modern society, the metal copper is ubiquitous, from mobile phones and computers to water pipes and cables. While the global trend towards vigorous decarbonization is based on phasing out highly polluting natural resources such as oil and coal, future electrification will need to consume more copper.
Despite copper’s critical role, the world is increasingly threatened with a copper scarcity in the coming decades. The best-quality mines are being depleted, while the few new discoveries are either located in difficult-to-operate locations or have faced opposition to their development for years.
The history of commodity markets shows that looming shortage crises often spur new discoveries and technologies. In the 2010s, the U.S. shale oil boom upended the oil market, while breakthroughs in nickel processing technology revolutionized supply expectations.
However, discovering new resources in the copper industry is becoming increasingly unlikely because of the long history of copper mining, with use dating back to at least 8,000 BC in what is now Turkey and Iran. This means that most of the world’s high-quality deposits have already been discovered and mined; more than half of the world’s 20 largest copper deposits were discovered more than a century ago.
But the long history of copper mining has also meant that a lot of the metal has been dumped in the waste rock above ground.
The reason behind this phenomenon is a principle as old as the mining industry: After the ore is dug out of the ground, the most easily extractable metal is extracted, and the ore that is too difficult or expensive to extract is discarded as waste rock. With some 43 million tonnes of copper mined and unprocessed in the past decade alone, worth more than $2 trillion at current prices, there is a huge opportunity for anyone who succeeds in recovering this wealth .
Rather, slag reprocessing is not a new concept as technology improves or prices rise. It’s just that certain types of ores have been unable to be reprocessed. Technological breakthroughs have not only brought about opportunities for slag reprocessing, there are also millions of tons of unminable ore in the ground.
The technology’s success will depend largely on the willingness of mining companies to set up Jetti’s plant. Jetti estimates that if the technology is fully embraced by the industry, by the 2040s, an additional 8 million tonnes of copper could be produced annually, more than a third of global copper mine output last year.
Mike Outwin, founder and chief executive of Jetti, said: “The industry has been accumulating waste materials for years. People have been trying to solve this problem for more than two decades, but to no avail.”
So far, only the Pinto Valley Copper Mine in Arizona is using Jetti’s process. But the process holds such promise that three of the world’s largest copper mining companies, including BHP Billiton, have stakes in the company. The company was last valued at $2.5 billion.
Copper giant Freeport said that the company “has also started commercial implementation at the Baghdad Copper Mine in Arizona this year, trialing this technology, and will evaluate the results and continue to negotiate other cooperation opportunities with Jetti.”
What problem does Jetti hope to solve?
There are two main types of copper-bearing rocks. The most common sulphide ores are usually crushed and concentrated to produce pure copper through a pyro-refining process. But this method is not suitable for oxidized ore. The last major innovation in the industry was in the mid-1980s, when the industry used electrochemical processes to purify copper from oxide ores, substantially increasing supply.
Now, Jetti plans to use its technology to extract copper from a common sulfide ore that cannot be economically processed by either method because the ore is too low in copper to be economically refined , and the ore’s hard, non-reactive overburden precludes the use of low-cost electrochemical or “leaching” processes for copper purification.
A chemical catalyst developed by Jetti in collaboration with the University of British Columbia can break through the overburden, allowing copper to be released through a leaching process without the need for high temperatures.
While Jetti’s process is one of the most advanced yet, Rio Tinto says it has also solved the challenge in laboratory trials. Rio Tinto also uses Nuton technology as an incentive for the small mining companies it invests in: if the small company can successfully develop its mining project, Rio Tinto will deploy the Nuton process to improve the profitability of the small company. This year, Rio Tinto has signed three similar agreements.
Adam Burleigh, head of the Rio Tinto project, said: “The scale of the return shows the potential. It’s huge and it has to be harnessed.”
Rio Tinto hopes to produce about 500,000 tonnes of copper at Nuton by the end of the decade, and hopes that the business will produce as much annually as one of the world’s top five copper mines in the future.
Major mining companies such as Freeport, Codelco and Antofagasta Plc are also developing in-house solutions at their copper mines, but so far there is no report on the success of the projects. Too much disclosure.
And the achievements of these solutions are limited. The key markets for the technology are North and South America, and progress depends on whether the technology can be applied in large mines.
But for BHP Billiton, the company’s willingness to discuss the future of Escondida, the world’s largest copper mine, with a small start-up speaks volumes.
Talks have been going on for months, but one of the sticking points has been Jetti’s insistence on getting its own plant up and running at the copper mine, according to people familiar with the matter. The two sides are still negotiating how to share profits.
At the same time, people familiar with the matter said that Rio Tinto, as BHP Billiton’s junior partner in the Escondida copper mine, hopes that the copper mine can also consider Nuton technology.
Jetti and BHP declined to comment on the talks or the deal.
“Jetti’s technology is real. It’s neither a lab test nor a pilot plant. Jetti’s technology has already been deployed commercially. There will be huge profits for partners using our process, and Jetti will Can be rewarded.” (Fortune Chinese Network)
—James Attwood and Mark Burton contributed to this article.
Translator: Liu Jinlong
Reviewer: Wang Hao
The warnings keep getting louder: the world is hurting 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 materialize 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 tons 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 specialized 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 people familiar with the matter. 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 decarbonize 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 tons of copper have been mined but never processed, worth more than $2 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 tons 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 8 million tons of additional copper could be produced each year by the 2040s – more than one of third 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 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 $2.5 billion.
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.”
So what is the problem that Jetti is seeking to solve?
There are two main kinds of copper-bearing rock. The most common type, sulfide ores, are typically crushed, concentrated, and then turned into pure copper in a fire-refining process. But that method isn’t suitable for oxidic ores, and The industry’s last big innovation came in the mid-1980s when it adapted an electro-chemical process to extract copper from oxide ores, providing a major boost to supply.
Now, Jetti aims to apply its technology to recover copper from a common type of sulfide ore that couldn’t be economically processed via either route — the copper content is too low to justify the cost of refining, while the hard, non-reactive coating prevented the copper from being extracted in the lower-cost electro-chemical or “leaching” process.
Jetti worked with the University of British Columbia to develop a chemical catalyst that breaks through the layer, so that the copper can be released using leaching without the need for high temperatures.
While Jetti’s process is the most advanced, Rio Tinto says it’s also cracked the challenge in lab trials. Rio has been offering its Nuton technology as a sweetener to junior mining companies that it invests in: if the smaller firms successfully miningn develop their Rio will deploy the Nuton process to boost profitability. It’s signed three such deals already this year.
“When you look at the size of the prize, the potential is enormous,” said Adam Burley, who runs the Rio project. “It’s too big to leave on the table.”
Rio wants Nuton to have produced a total of about 500,000 tons of copper by the end of this decade, with hopes that the business may one day produce the annual equivalent of one of the world’s top-five copper mines.
Other major miners including Freeport, Codelco and Antofagasta Plc have all been working on in-house solutions at their own mines, though so far there has been little disclosed information on how successful these projects have been.
And there are limitations to how much can be achieved. The focus is on North and South America, and the progress will depend on whether the technology can be deployed across the major mines.
Yet for BHP, the fact that it is even discussing the future of Escondida, the world’s single biggest source of copper, with a small upstart is telling.
Negotiations have been underway for months, although one of the sticking points in the talks has been Jetti’s insistence that it installs and runs its own plant at the host mine, according to the people familiar with the matter. There are also negotiations about how to split the profits.
Meanwhile, Rio, which is BHP’s junior partner at Escondida, is arguing that it wants the Nuton technology to also be considered, according to people familiar with the matter.
Jetti and BHP declined to comment on the specific negotiations or deals.
“Jetti is very real. It’s not lab tests or pilot plants. Jetti has been deployed commercially,” said Outwin. “Our partners will make extraordinary profits from being able to utilize our process, and Jetti will do well.”
—With assistance from James Attwood and Mark Burton
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