One of Copper’s Biggest Riddles Has Been Solved

One of Copper's biggest enigmas has been solved

Humans are more dependent than ever on a metal we’ve been using for 10,000 years. We’re running out of new sources, and breakthrough technologies that have changed the way we use other goods haven’t happened for copper.

The warnings keep getting louder: the world is hurtling toward a terrible lack of copper.

Up till now

A US startup says it has solved a puzzle that has been puzzling the mining world for decades. If true, this could change the way the world gets its supplies.

If it works, Jetti Resources’ discovery could lead to millions of tons of new copper that could be used in power grids, construction sites, and car fleets all over the world. This would help narrow or even close the deficit.

Jetti’s technology is based on a common type of ore that holds copper behind a thin film, making it too expensive and hard to get out. Because of this, over the years, huge amounts of metal have been left behind in mine waste piles on the surface and in untapped deposits. Jetti has created a special catalyst that breaks up the layer and allows microbes that eat rocks to get to work on freeing the copper.

Large-scale testing of the technology is still needed. But the money at stake is bringing in some of the most powerful people in the business.

Sources say that the biggest mining company, BHP Group, is already an investor and has spent months negotiating for a trial plant at Escondida, Chile’s crown jewel copper mine.

This year, Freeport-McMoRan Inc., a US mining company, started using Jetti’s technology at a mine in Arizona. At the same time, Rio Tinto Group, another US mining company, plans to roll out a similar but different process.

The miners are trying to solve a problem that is getting worse and worse. Copper is used everywhere in the modern world, from water pipes and cables to phones and computers. And while the global push to reduce carbon emissions is based on getting rid of dirty natural resources like oil and coal, an electrified future will need more copper than ever before.

Even though it is important, the world will likely run out of it in the coming decades. The best mines are getting old, and the few new ones that have been found are either in places that are hard to work in or face years of opposition.

The history of commodity markets shows that shortages lead to 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 it’s getting harder to find new copper deposits because mining has been going on for so long. Copper has been used since at least 8,000 BC in what is now Turkey and Iraq. That means that most of the world’s big deposits have already been found and used. More than half of the world’s 20 biggest copper mines were found more than a century ago.

Waste dumps

But because copper has been mined for a long time, there are also huge amounts of metal sitting on the ground in waste dumps.

The reason for this is a rule that has been around since the beginning of mining: the ore is dug up from the ground, the easiest metal is taken out, and anything that is too hard or expensive to process is thrown away as waste.

Only in the last ten years have about 43 million tonnes of copper been mined but never processed. At current prices, that copper is worth more than US$2 trillion (RM9 trillion), so anyone who can figure out how to get it back has a huge chance of making a lot of money.

Reprocessing mine waste when technology gets better or prices go up is not a new idea. But for some types of ore, that hasn’t been possible. And the discovery could be used for a lot more than just waste dumps. There are still millions of tons of waste underground that couldn’t be mined before.

Much depends on whether or not mining companies are willing to put Jetti’s plants in their mines. But if the industry fully adopts the technology, the company thinks that up to eight million tonnes of extra copper could be made each year by the 2040s. That’s more than a third of the total amount of copper mined around the world last year.

“The industry has accumulated this waste material forever,” said Jetti’s founder and chief executive officer Mike Outwin.

“They’ve been trying to figure it out on their own for about 20 years but haven’t been able to.”

So far, only one mine, Pinto Valley in Arizona, has used Jetti’s method. But the results have been so good that three of the biggest copper mining companies in the world, including BHP, have bought shares in the company. The last time it raised money, it was worth US$2.5 billion (RM11.2 billion).