Is “Peak Copper” on the Horizon?
As the world moves further into the digital age, reliance on copper is increasing. Copper for wiring and plumbing is an essential component in all new building construction, as well as the plethora of electronic devices and appliances which the 21st Century consumer demands.
The world’s largest copper supplier, the BHP Escondida mine, racked up $1 billion in profits in just the first 6 months of 2018, providing just 5% of the world’s demand for copper. Mining Technology cites The International Copper Study Group’s (ICSG) conclusion that global copper production, combining both primary and secondary sources, increased from 20.1 million metric tons (MMT) in 2012 to 23.4MMT in 2017.
As demand for copper continues to rise, the ICSG reports the world’s copper mines have only been able to operate at 84% of total production capacity, sucking up an astounding 5% of the world’s electricity to grind up rocks in mineral processing plants. “Peak copper” is the term for the highest possible copper production at which demand will exceed supply, and some experts fear that day is near.
Obviously, more efficient extraction technologies are needed and a multidisciplinary team from the UK’s University of Nottingham has come up with an innovative solution to boost copper mining efficiency after two decades of research.
The MicroHammer Ore Pre-treatment Technique
The University of Nottingham team was led by Professor Sam Kingman, and they were recently awarded the Colin Campbell Mitchell Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK for their MicroHammer pilot project which was able to process 150 tons of rock per hour.
But that’s just the proof of concept number. Kingman’s team, in collaboration with Teledyne e2v, plans to scale up the prototype operation to continuously process 3,000 tons per hour.
The pre-treatment works by exposing the ore to microwaves which heats certain mineral phases in the ore which then creates stress fractures in the material structure. Liberation occurs closer to the native grain size of the ore, allowing much coarser ore to be processed than in traditional operations. After the MicroHammer treatment, ore can be processed at sizes 100 microns smaller than the minimum size ore bodies which could be processed conventionally.
The result is a significant drop in waste ore along with a lowering of overall energy consumption for the processing by 30 percent. This clears the way for treatment of more of the world’s copper reserves which could hold off “peak copper.” But MicroHammer can also play a role in other sectors of the mining industry.
Increasing Throughput Capacity For Mining
MicroHammer technology also has a future in mineral mining applications with lower throughput tonnage than copper. For one example, gold is processed at an average rate of 500 tons per hour. As compared to the 15,000 tons per hour in the largest copper processing operations, Kingman anticipates that introducing the technology to these lower throughput sectors will be relatively easy.
By developing the MicroHammer technology with large-scale ambitions in mind from the start, Teledyne e2v engineering focused on adapting microwave technology in the mining industry where it had never been used before. The result is robust durable microwave hardware which can endure the harsh mining environments for copper, gold, and zinc. MicroHammer also opens the door to ore locked in waste material from the past which couldn’t be processed at the time, as well as ore bodies which were determined to be too hard to process.
As Teledyne e2v engineer Paul Burleigh says about MicroHammer’s potential, “It’s going to enable deposits that aren’t economic at the moment to become economic.”
About Resource Erectors
While peak copper is addressed by MicroHammer, at Resource Erectors, we’ve made it our mission to ensure peak performance for the top companies in North America in the mining, civil construction, engineering, aggregate, and mineral processing industries. We match the best professionals with the industry-leading companies who need their talents.