The copper industry in the 21st century

Fleming Voetmann, of the International Copper Association (ICA), says the copper industry needs to embrace innovation to meet growing demand
The copper industry in the 21st century The copper industry in the 21st century The copper industry in the 21st century The copper industry in the 21st century The copper industry in the 21st century

BHP is using blockchain technology to ensure a more efficient and effective supply chain. Photo: BHP

Fleming Voetmann

As the copper industry gathers for the annual World Copper Conference in Santiago, Chile, on April 8-10, this provides an opportunity to take stock of where the industry is going.

Innovation in areas like digitalisation, IoT, Industry 4.0, pre-emptive maintenance work and automation is transforming the industry, far away from our outdated images of mining. These innovations bring us not only increased worker safety but also greater energy and water efficiency.

The market for copper continues to grow. According to the 2018 World Copper Factbook (WCF), demand for copper has tripled in the last 50 years, due to the expansion of such sectors as electrical products, transportation equipment and consumer products. Copper mine production continues to grow exponentially, at an average annual rate of 3.2%, and has done each year since 1900. It will reach 25.9 million metric tonnes in 2021. In turn, annual usage since 1900 has grown an average of 3.4%, reaching 23.8 million metric tonnes in 2017.

The WCF also notes that the "loop" of copper production cannot be closed for two reasons: "Firstly, demand will continue to increase due to population growth, product innovation and economic development. Secondly in most applications, copper stays in use for decades."

It also notes that, "meeting future metals demand will continue to require a combination of primary raw materials, coming from mines, as well as recycled materials, while innovative policies and technology should continue to contribute to improvements in recycling performance and resource efficiency".

Due to this growing market, higher recycling targets alone will not be enough to meet the expected demand - more extraction is required. As such, productivity is key to ensure sustainability. It helps the industry become more efficient to meet rising demand, while also saving on energy use and conserving water. This changing and expanding market brings great challenges but also opportunities. Investment in new technologies and innovation can help increase sustainability via increased productivity and efficiency, ensuring that the copper industry seizes these opportunities and adapts to a changing world while contributing to a sustainable future.

leming oetmann Fleming Voetmann

Other industries have already pushed ahead with this shift. In the power sector, technologies such as smart grids and battery technology have enabled greater energy efficiency and a more stable grid, facilitating the uptake of renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, the automotive sector is moving ahead with automation, alongside battery and connected vehicle technology, creating new opportunities and improving road safety.

In the copper industry, we are also moving forward. On average, the members of the Copper Alliance invest a combined US$20 billion a year to improve their contribution to sustainable development in areas, including protecting the environment and ensuring the safety of their operations.

A big part of this investment involves the use of automation technology. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that autonomous machines will be commonplace by 2025, and that having these machines operating constantly could add US$56 billion in value to the mining industry. The WEF also says digitalisation, through improved health and safety, could save an estimated 1,000 lives and avoid 44,000 injuries over 10 years across all areas of mining.

The use of automation technologies plays a huge part in helping the industry become safer for its workforce and more efficient in terms of mining. Boliden in Sweden has already implemented several types of automation technology, such as advanced position technology and monitoring systems, to quickly locate workers and equipment at any time and allow better planning and increased mine productivity. It has also installed demand ventilation systems, which can achieve up to 25% energy savings compared to traditional ventilation systems.

Meanwhile in Chile, state-owned copper mining company Codelco announced plans to further integrate automation in the operation of its mine fleets and processing plants, assessing areas for greater efficiency and redefining its entire operational approach. They have deployed automated trucks, resulting in more material moving more efficiently and safely, creating a direct increase in productivity. At Rio Tinto, each autonomous truck in use has been estimated to operate 700 hours longer than conventional trucks did in 2017 and each truck has seen a 15% cut in load and haul costs. In addition, no injuries have resulted from automated trucks since their deployment.

oliden has also installed demand ventilation systems which can achieve up to 25 energy savings compared to traditional ventilation systemsBoliden has also installed demand ventilation systems, which can achieve up to 25% energy savings compared to traditional ventilation systems

Automation is not the only technology the copper industry can take advantage of to become more productive. BHP is using blockchain technology to ensure a more efficient and effective supply chain. The project involves sharing data on materials with vendors for a continuous understanding of where materials are located at every stage of the mining process. Codelco is also working on new biotech solutions to control dust pollution and reduce water consumption at its mines. It now uses a solution that replaces the water that would normally be put over mine roads, reducing dust while enabling trucks to travel safely.

This commitment to innovation and digital technologies is necessary if the copper industry is to confront 21st century challenges. As the copper industry works towards meeting the growing demand for copper, automation and other digital innovations will significantly help to increase the sustainability of copper mining through increased investments in productivity and efficiency.

The copper industry is fundamental for a sustainable future and is already making its own operations sustainable. In the coming years we must continue to press on to increase productivity and sustainability in order to drive profitability and, equally importantly, to ensure licence to operate. As our industry gathers for the 2019 World Copper Conference, we need to capture the momentum offered by the transition towards a low-carbon future. The only way to increase the industry's sustainability is to increase productivity, and the best way to do this is to continue to invest in innovation.

Fleming Voetmann is VP of public affairs for the International Copper Association (ICA)