What’s old is new again 

While there has been a lot of hype around the role of lithium in the electric battery revolution, copper is also poised to play a role in powering next-generation technologies. 

The commodity’s superior conductivity, efficiency and ductility make it a critical material for wind and solar technology, energy storage and electric vehicles. 

According to the International Copper Association, a typical three-megawatt wind turbine contains up to 4.3 tonnes of copper, and there are approximately five tonnes of copper per megawatt in solar power systems. 

There is also more than three times the amount of copper in a battery-powered electric vehicle than your traditional internal combustion engine car. 

As a result, experts predict global demand for the base metal to grow significantly in the coming years. 

International Copper Association Australia CEO John Fennell said global demand could effectively double in the next two decades. 

“When I joined the copper industry in 1998, the demand globally was 9.1 million tonnes per annum,” he said. 

“By 2021 global demand will be 26 million tonnes and by 2040 it is estimated demand will be around 50 million tonnes.” 

A switch to cleaner energy won’t be the only primary driver of the copper rush, though. 

Mr Fennell said every time a country’s standard of living improved and more people had access to electricity, there tended to be an increase in the consumption of copper per capita. 

With nations like China and India seeing a dramatic rise in the number of middle-class citizens, he expected demand for copper cabling to increase considerably. 

Mr Fennell said while there were some substitutes for copper, such as aluminium, none of them were as efficient, robust or reliable. 

All this bodes well for the Australian mining sector, where there is an air of excitement around some recent copper discoveries which are hoped to be world-class deposits. 

There are fingers crossed that BHP’s Oak Dam discovery in South Australia turns out to be as important a find as its nearby cousin, Olympic Dam. 

The area, where BHP encountered copper grade intersections as high as six per cent, is undergoing a second round of drilling to further define its mineralisation. 

South Australian Department of Energy and Mining Chief Executive Dr Paul Heithersay said Oak Dam could prove to be one of the best intersections the world has seen in the last decade. 

“It’s the same style of deposit as Olympic Dam,” he said. “We don’t know how big it is yet, or if it’s economically viable, but with those grades you are off to a good start.” 

Dr Heithersay said the find demonstrated the chances of discovery were still relatively high in South Australia. 

“They’re never on their own,” he said. “They come in families, so we are pretty sure there are more Olympic Dam-type ore bodies out there. We expect more of the family will become known as people drill more holes.” 

While the industry waits with bated breath over the second drilling results at Oak Dam, BHP is planning to go ahead with a major expansion at its Olympic Dam operation that will see copper production increase from 200,000 tonnes to 350,000 tonnes per annum. 

The project has been declared a major development proposal by the South Australian Government and BHP will continue to progress growth studies as it works to seek board approval by mid-to-late 2020. 

Continuing the momentum around South Australian copper, OZ Minerals’ Carrapateena operation 160km north of Port Augusta has almost finished construction. Commissioning is scheduled for the last quarter of this year. 

In April, the company announced it would progress with a pre-feasibility study on an expansion project that would increase average copper production up to 125,000 tonnes per annum from 2026. 

Not to be outdone, WA has also seen some promising copper developments come to light. 

Rio Tinto released “encouraging” exploration results for its Winu copper-gold discovery in the far east Pilbara. And while the company said it was too early to assess size and scale, the announcement fuelled buzzing speculation of a major find. 

Rio plans to release additional results from the next phase of drilling in the third quarter of 2019. 

Despite these promising developments, experts warn Australia must continue to invest in exploration and innovation to be able to fully capitalise on the future global demand for copper. 

Mr Fennell said while there was still a healthy number of reserves and resources, industry was having to dig deeper than ever to discover them. 

“The industry is looking at ways to sort through and extract the copper below the surface,” he said. “The mine of the future could see processing being done robotically and autonomously underground.” 

Dr Heithersay said the SA Government had injected $10 million into a program over three years that will subsidise drilling programs and develop new techniques for exploration. 

“It can take five to 10 years from discovery to delivery, so we have to be in this copper strategy for the long haul,” he said. 

“If we apply new technology and expertise to the data sets we already have, we could find some new targets that may not have been identified by more conventional methods.” 

CAPTION: BHP is planning a major expansion at its Olympic Dam operation. Image: BHP.

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