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Message in a bottle: More copper needed

Metal Tech News – April 19, 2023

In a clarion call to current and future mining colleagues, IMDEX geoscience chief warns lack of copper may slow energy transition.

As global governments and industries scramble to ensure there is enough lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and rare earths to build the collective vision of a future where electric vehicles are charged with zero-carbon renewable energy, the geoscientists charged with discovering the mineral deposits needed to meet global demand are much more concerned about a much more common metal – copper.

In an address to geoscience students at the University of British Columbia, IMDEX Chief Geoscientist and Technologist Dave Lawie said the mining sector's inability to deliver enough copper to the market fast enough may very well slow the transition to low-carbon energy and transportation.

"Lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, manganese, rare earths; don't worry about it as a geoscientist," he told the next generation of geoscientists. "Copper? Worry a lot because that is where the problem is going to come."

The IMDEX geoscience chief points to the mining sector's dismal record of effectively communicating its role in the low-carbon future as a primary reason why there may not be enough copper to wire the clean energy future.

"We are an incredibly bad industry at communicating with the general public – terrible, abysmal," he told the group of next-generation geoscientists at UBC.

This lack of ability to communicate mining's essential role in the envisioned low-carbon future is compounded by a public disconnect when it comes to where the materials to build modern products come from.

"Try asking them where the copper comes from for their iPhone," he told the UBC students. "They won't know; they just won't have thought of that as a concept. But that's not their problem. That is our problem."

The copper problem becomes exponentially more difficult in a world where global energy is delivered via powerlines instead of pipelines.

"Solar and wind would have to grow 20 to 30 times to deliver the amount of electrification the U.S. needs to decarbonize by 2050 or go carbon neutral by 2050," Lawie said. "When I see that I think, where is the copper going to come from?"

He told the coming generation of geoscientists that finding enough copper to wire the renewable energy revolution is a problem "that needs the best minds on the planet to think through."

Battery metals not a concern

During his address to the UBC students, Lawie did not downplay the massive demand for lithium-ion battery minerals and rare earths.

"To supply the demand for electrify electric vehicles by 2040 we'll need 42 times the amount of lithium, 25 times more graphite, 21 times more cobalt, 11 times more nickel, and seven times more rare earths than we are producing now," the IMDEX geoscientist said.

While these growth numbers are unprecedented and headline-grabbing, Lawie says they are only "mildly disturbing" to geoscientists.

"Lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, manganese, rare earths; don't worry about it as a geoscientist," Lawie told the UBC students.

The reason for this is the high percentage growth for most battery metals and rare earths is building off a very low starting quantity.

For example, the global demand for lithium was minuscule until the rise of lithium-ion batteries that power cordless electronics. While EVs are driving the need for lithium to new highs, there is plenty of lithium-ion batteries' namesake metal around to meet that demand.

"Australia has increased its hard rock lithium production immensely in just a matter of two or three years – we can respond, it doesn't worry me at all. Same with graphite – we haven't really seriously looked for graphite, we'll fix that. Cobalt is an issue, particularly with mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we can we find 20 times more cobalt, not a problem geologically," Lawie told the geoscientists that will soon be joining the critical minerals hunt.

Critical copper

Unlike the deposits of lithium, graphite, and cobalt that have been lying in wait for global demand and prices to rise to a point where it makes sense to develop them, copper has been a mainstay of the global economy since the Bronze Age and especially since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

"Copper is and always has been critical to our economic and national security but now to the clean energy transition as well," Copper Development Association President Andrew Kireta, Jr. said earlier this year.

When calculating the quantity of metals required to build the low-carbon energy future, the World Bank estimated in 2019 that roughly 550 million tons (1.1 trillion pounds) of copper will be needed over 25 years, which is roughly equivalent to all copper that has been mined over the previous 5,000.

This nearly unimaginable amount of copper needed by the mid-2040s is due to renewable energy and EVs requiring more than twice the quantities of copper than their fossil fuel-burning forebearers, which is exacerbated by a green energy future that will require more electricity to be generated and delivered.

"This is a very finely balanced supply consumption equation," Lawie said.

"We can't risk copper supply chain delays or our want and willingness to expand solar, and wind electricity production won't happen," the IMDEX geoscience chief added.

The first 550 million tons of copper was mined from the highest-grade and easiest deposits, which creates a challenge for geoscientists seeking the next 1.1 trillion pounds.

"In 2021, we used about 20 to 23 million tonnes (metric tons) of copper, but some projections have that demand going to 30 million tonnes by 2030. How on earth are we going to go from 22 million tonnes of copper to 30 million tonnes a year?" Lawie asked.

More than half of the 22 million metric tons of copper mined globally during 2022 came from Chile, Peru, Congo, and China. This compounds the geological challenge of supplying enough of the electrical conductor metal with a geopolitical one.

Bottled-up sector

Economics 101 dictates that when the market demands more of any given commodity than can be supplied, then the price rises, and industry is incentivized to increase supply.

With copper forecast to outstrip supply, it would be expected that mining companies are remobilizing vast quantities of resources toward taking advantage of this momentous occasion.

In typical fashion, Lawie says the mining sector "sort of is and isn't" massively ramping up budgets to explore for the copper that will wire the renewable energy revolution.

"What we're doing is within the realms of what our industry conventionally does in the face of these things, which is not much actually because we're still risk averse," he admitted.

As a result, roughly half of global mineral exploration budgets continue to be spent on the search for more gold. This leaves only about half for discovering adequate supplies of the copper, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, nickel, zinc, and other minerals and metals required to build the clean energy future.

"The amount of exploration spending on copper is increasing, but not really anything that's going to make a difference," Lawie said.

The 25-year geoscience veteran told the UBC geoscience students that it is like the global mining industry is inside a bottle and does not know its purpose.

"On the outside of the bottle it says, 'save the world,' but we can't read the label," he said.

While providing the next generation of geoscientists a glimpse of the message on the outside of the bottle, Lawie also delivered a clarion call for his colleagues on the inside.

"The message for my mining industry comrades is, I just wonder if our industry can actually do anything about this?" he asked.

The message is in the bottle – will it be heeded by the mining sector and effectively communicated to a world that needs copper to wire the envisioned low-carbon future?

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.

 

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