Copper for Tomorrow: Sustainable copper production for a clean energy future

As copper is needed for the transition to clean energy, the Copper for Tomorrow bid aims to solve challenges in the value chain to increase sustainable copper production.

Copper is essential for the successful transition to a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable future. Forecasts predict a looming supply shortfall which will present opportunities for expanding and growing copper production. In turn, this will provide an economic boost with investment and create jobs for mining companies and suppliers along the value chain. Without copper, nations will not be able to transition to a green energy society and meet their net zero goals.

Gavin Yeates, mining futurist and Bid Chair, explained: “The current approach to copper production is energy- and and water-intensive, a trend increasing as grades decline, and produces more emissions and waste products. It will not be possible to meet future demands for copper through the recycling of scrap alone. New exploration and mine development will not meet the demand either, as exploring for new, near-surface deposits is challenging and time-consuming, and it can take over a decade to move from discovery to operating a mine. Markets in the future green economy may not buy copper that has not been sustainably produced.”

Professor Volker Hessel, Bid Research Director, commented: “We have a sustainable copper paradox: how do we increase the production of copper needed for a green energy society, and do so by processing lower grade ores, without using more energy and water and producing greater volumes of waste? The paradox at least doubles in intensity when considering that the electrification of mining machines will not allow the same intense operation that diesel-powered machines could do, even though this should be an inherent component of any transition from fossil to renewable fuels. We have to learn to do ‘more with less’ for the benefit of our environment.”

© iStock/VvoeVale

The Copper for Tomorrow bid

An Australian coalition, with a bid sponsored by the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Resources (ISER) (which in April 2022 replaced the Institute for Minerals, Energy and Resources), stands together with leading senior advisors from industry, along with experts from the University of South Australia, Curtin University, and the University of Queensland, to provide a cooperative, industry-led research approach to address these global challenges and opportunities. The team is looking to establish a centre with the Australian Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) funding scheme and is preparing a bid to the Australian Government for funding in 2022.

By bringing together industry and researchers, the proposed Copper for Tomorrow CRC will help solve the challenge of sustainably meeting copper demand while addressing business opportunities through helping companies achieve or exceed their environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) targets and remain profitable. The team has had input from industry and expert advisors to devise integrated, multidisciplinary research priorities that cut across the value chain.

Priorities for the Copper for Tomorrow CRC

The Copper for Tomorrow CRC mission is to help the copper production industry achieve its ESG goals, while also increasing the profitable production of copper from lower grade, more complex ore bodies.

To transition to a clean and sustainable economy across the globe, it is estimated that we will need more copper in the next 30 years than we have ever mined. We would need to double current global production – an effort that will require cooperative research and innovation to do so sustainably.

Professor Michael Goodsite, ISER Director (Acting Research Program Leader for Economics of Sustainable Copper), posed: “Copper is required to power the green economy but how do we increase profitable production of copper from low grade deposits without increasing the environmental impact from mining?”

A dedicated CRC will focus on research and development priorities to solve technical challenges across the copper value chain to:

  • Address the economics of sustainable copper, for example, its flowsheet economics, copper stewardship, carbon accounting, and other ESG policy and geopolitical issues;
  • Solve mining challenges and take advantage of opportunities like mine design for ESG and innovative techniques such as in-place recovery technologies (Professor Peter Knights, Discipline Leader – Mining with the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland);
  • Resolve processing challenges with opportunities such as processing without tailings, low-water technologies, and low and zero emissions processing (Professor William Skinner, Leader – Minerals and Resource Engineering, The University of South Australia (UniSA), Research Professor Leader for Processing); and
  • Make the most of the additional opportunities presented during sustainable mining and processing of copper, for example, utilising the associated commodities and by-products (Professor Jacques Eksteen, Chair for Extractive Metallurgy at the WA School of Mines; Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering and Research Program Co-lead for ‘Copper Plus’).

Professor Nigel Cook, University of Adelaide and Copper Plus Co-lead, commented: “A leap in innovation is required to allow already known, lower grade, complex ores to be mined both economically and in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. This is a global challenge beyond the capability of a single organisation or sector. It requires multi-disciplinary cooperation between miners, mining, equipment, technology, and services (METS) companies, and researchers with complementary expertise and track records in innovation.”

The CRC’s scope will include research on innovations and technologies proposed in the International Copper Association Australia (ICAA) Zero Emission Copper Mine of the Future report, which includes themes on water, discovery, material movement, ventilation, and mineral processing.

The Copper for Tomorrow CRC will create a research-led approach to teaching, drawing upon our Education and Training team’s wealth of domestic and international experience within both academia and industry. The team brings a mix of economic, resource management, processing, production, and sustainability expertise ready to inform advanced copper mining management practices.

Australian copper clean energy transition
© iStock/DaleBaxter

Why is the bid anchored in Australia?

Australia plays a significant role in the raw materials supply chain and hosts the second-largest known copper reserves on the planet. It also has over a decade of experience in its successful CRC programme. CRCs must be industry-led entities with an industry-defined scope. Research providers will offer the people: research design, laboratories, and training, as needed, to meet the challenges posed by industry partners. The Copper for Tomorrow CRC will be a not-for-profit, independent company led by a CEO and management team and overseen by an independent board. To bid for a CRC, industry partners need to commit funding over the ten-year life of the CRC. Funds will go towards innovation, education, and training. Partner contributions are usually eligible for research and development (R&D) tax concessions.

Rethink rather than redo

Without innovation, the global mining industry will not meet the demand for copper required of modern energy systems, limiting the pace of sustainable development, and constraining the transition to a greener economy. Some solutions to the paradox are emerging, but to achieve the next-level step change, we need to approach this systematically and collaboratively. We need to rethink how we sustainably make decisions, design mines and processing plants, recover copper, remove impurities, and turn by-products within the complex ores into resources. This requires industry-led effort.

At Copper for Tomorrow, we welcome new industry partners, and we encourage interested industry to contact us now to be a part of this bid.

Copper for Tomorrow CRC Bid Team

Please note, this article will also appear in the tenth edition of our quarterly publication.

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