Guest comment- January/February 2024 | Global Mining Review

Shortfalls in copper production are predicted to reach crisis point…

Shortfalls in copper production are predicted to reach crisis point by 2030, with an annual deficit of 5 million t – ultimately impeding global sustainability goals.

Guest comment- January/February 2024

This alarming prognosis stems from a surge in demand driven by the exponential growth in electric vehicles and myriad other electrification applications, surpassing current production capacity.

Demand for refined copper to meet global decarbonisation efforts is poised to nearly triple by 2050 compared to 2020 production levels, with a projected surge from the 20 million t produced in 2020 to an estimated 57 million t. This means the world is challenged with sustaining an annual upswing in copper production of between 20 – 30% within the next seven years – that is a capacity on par with the current outputs of major producers Chile and Peru combined.

New mining operations are an increasingly urgent necessity and there are a number of industry projects awaiting decisions – yet many investors are waiting until the price is right, and this poses a major bottleneck risk when it comes to building the infrastructure needed in time.

Copper mining companies must process ore grades that are increasingly low, with 1 t of copper in every 100 t of rock at best. They typically do this with advanced and scalable grinding technology solutions. The industry workhorse for driving mills has been the gearless mill drive (GMD), which facilitates the extraction of copper from raw materials through grinding processes demanding minimal energy input.

ABB is one of only two producers of GMDs in the world and building these very large units takes time. This equipment challenge becomes two-fold when taking into account the forecasts of future ore grades being even lower than present, so much so that double the ore will need to be processed for the same amount of copper.

The integration of technology, alongside investments in new mining ventures, will be pivotal in ensuring that the world secures the essential copper and other metals required for the energy transition while maintaining cost-effectiveness and limiting the environmental impact of extraction.

The need to extract and process additional metals, while mitigating the already precarious and prominent issues associated with global warming this presents, is a formidable challenge for the sector. Mining currently contributes approximately 7% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally, with diesel combustion in machinery alone responsible for half of this substantial environmental footprint.

Efforts by mining enterprises to reduce carbon encompass multiple initiatives to shift machinery from diesel to electric wherever feasible. Additionally, they are actively engaged in designing machinery fuelled by alternative energy sources like hydrogen and ammonia. This concerted endeavour aims to significantly curtail, if not eliminate, the reliance on fossil fuels in mining equipment, such as trucks, loaders, and excavators.

Another pivotal undertaking involves the digital transformation of equipment, systems, and procedures, with the primary objective of optimising operational efficiency within mining operations. For instance, in the realm of GMDs, a multitude of predictive analysis systems are already in place to monitor equipment uptime. These sophisticated systems empower companies to proactively address maintenance requirements, thereby guaranteeing peak availability and efficiency for their machinery.

Artificial intelligence (Al) is heralding a new era of innovations in mining equipment, enabling advanced performance and operational analyses. This transformative technology delivers a broader spectrum of insights, notably in engine operation, enabling proactive measures to preclude issues and, crucially, conducting in-depth assessments of processed ore quality.

The shift towards digitising operations is imperative due to the heightened demand, compelling mining companies to prioritise maintenance procedures and pre-emptive failure mitigation. In this environment, even the slightest efficiency improvement holds significant value.

All in all, the integration of technology, alongside investments in novel mining ventures, will be pivotal in ensuring that the world secures the essential copper required for the energy transition while maintaining cost-effectiveness. The biggest risk we face is investment decisions being too little and too late.

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