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Future Trends - Copper

No shortages due to depletion of copper ore are anticipated in the foreseeable future. Of the world's reserves of copper, about 16% (198 billion pounds of copper) is in the USA. Each year about 3 billion pounds are withdrawn from the earth as US mine production.

Due to the continued trend for lower commodity prices (see chart below), copper producers worldwide will invest in processes that lower cost and reduce emissions.

Examples of copper processing investment trends include: Flash smelting improvements, hydrometallurgical process use preference rising where low sulfide ores are processed, and facilities that combine the use of both pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processes (i.e. hydrometallurgical process used to treat dusts from flash smelting).

Technologies are also being employed to reduce SO2 emissions. Modern flash smelting equipment enables the capture of up to 99% of SO2 (which is then used for the production of sulfuric acid). This technology, often in conjunction with another recently developed closed process, flash converting, allows compliance with current environmental standards on emissions. Kennecott's copper smelter in Utah, for example, employs this technology following modernization in the mid-1990s to achieve a sulfur fixation rate of 99.9%.

Additionally, a number of more recent processes such as Noranda, Mitsubishi, and Contop are replacing conventional smelting and converting processes. ISA-Smelt and KIVCET can replace roasting (or drying) and smelting. And, for converting, the Peirce-Smith and Hoboken converter processes are being employed. Users are encouraged to consult with the latest technical publications to learn more specific issues concerning these processes.

The future of copper applications is projected to include those such as superconductivity applications, new marine uses such as ship hulls and sheathing of offshore platforms, electric vehicles, earth-coupled heat pumps, solar energy, fire sprinkler systems, and nuclear waste disposal canisters.

Three other factors will also influence copper supply: US self-sufficiency, energy efficiency and recyclability.

  • The availability of major domestic deposits makes the USA self-sufficient in copper.
  • There are wide variations in the energy used to recover metals from the earth's crust. Copper ranks near the middle for energy required for extraction-higher than iron, zinc or lead, but at considerable advantage to aluminum, titanium and magnesium, which require much larger quantities of energy to break down the ore (or seawater and brines in the case of magnesium) into metallic form.
  • Each year, more copper is recovered and put back into service from recycled material than is derived from newly mined ore. Copper's recycle value is high. Premium-grade scrap normally has at least 95% of the value of primary metal from newly mined ore.