Copper, a metallic powerhouse, holds a pivotal role in our society. With remarkable conductivity, it powers electrical systems and facilitates efficient heat transfer. Its versatility extends across industries including construction, telecommunications, automotive, electronics, and more. Copper is sourced from concentrated deposits with most of the supply coming from countries like Chile and Peru. However, there is a darker side to the story. Due to the invaluable properties of copper and its wide utilization throughout our society, there is a looming supply gap of an estimated 10 million tons by 2030. This is a shocking statistic given that copper is 100% recyclable, but only ~30% is recycled. In this blog post, we will take a journey to discover the significance of copper, its diverse applications, and the quest to meet our growing demand for this critical resource.
What is the Copper Supply Gap and What is the Cause?
The global demand for copper is on the rise, driven by factors such as infrastructure development, renewable energy systems, and the growing popularity of electric vehicles (EVs). However, meeting this increasing demand may prove challenging due to a range of factors affecting the global copper supply.
Growing Global Demand: Copper plays a vital role in numerous industries, including construction, electronics, and transportation. The surge in EV adoption, infrastructure projects, renewable energy installations, and emerging economies’ development has significantly boosted copper demand.
Limited New Discoveries: Finding new, sizable, and high-grade copper deposits has become increasingly difficult. The rate of new copper discoveries has declined over the years, leaving the industry heavily reliant on existing mines. As these mines age, their production levels decline, further exacerbating the supply gap.
Declining Ore Grades: The average quality of copper ores is decreasing globally, meaning more ore must be processed to obtain the same amount of copper. Lower ore grades result in higher production costs and increase the resulting CO2 footprint counteracting sustainability and decarbonization goals.
Technological Challenges: Extracting copper from lower-grade ores or unconventional sources requires intricate mining and processing techniques. Implementing these methods is often complex and expensive, posing significant challenges to successfully increasing copper supply.
Environmental & Societal Factors: Mining operations face stringent environmental regulations, community opposition, and concerns about their impact on local ecosystems and communities. These factors can lead to project delays, cancellations, or stricter operating conditions, which negatively impact potential future copper supply from new mines.
What are the Implications?
A supply gap of the size projected would exert tremendous upward pressure on copper prices. Given copper’s use in a range of end markets, these cost pressures would be transmitted throughout the supply chain, lifting prices for intermediate and finished goods such as semiconductor chips, PCBs, and EVs, as well as consumer prices for durable goods. In addition to substantial price increases, a copper shortage would disrupt supply chains and thus make achieving climate change targets even more challenging. Under most predicted scenarios with even a modest supply gap, Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 would not be a possibility for the US.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the impacts of higher prices, price volatility, and insufficient copper supplies.
Delayed Infrastructure Projects & Technological Constraints: Copper plays a pivotal role in the development of crucial infrastructure, such as electrical grids, transportation systems, and telecommunications networks. However, an inadequate supply of copper would impede the timely completion of these projects, leading to far-reaching consequences. The repercussions could manifest as hindered economic growth, jeopardized job creation, and a slowdown in the overall progress of vital infrastructure initiatives. Additionally, many of the advanced technologies that are intimately tied to these infrastructures would also suffer. Technologies such as EVs, renewable energy systems, and electronic devices would suffer from hindered development and slow down the transition to a more sustainable electrified, and efficient future society.
Shift to Alternative Materials: With industrial facilities unable to get the access they need to copper material and components they may seek to utilize alternative materials, such as aluminum. Nevertheless, identifying suitable substitutes that can replicate copper’s distinctive properties like thermal/electrical conductivity, weight, and durability poses a formidable challenge. Consequently, the potential exists for notable compromises to arise in terms of performance, efficiency, and durability of the final products.
Promoting Sustainable Practices: An encouraging possibility is the emergence of a heightened commitment to and availability of investments in copper recycling. Recycling initiatives can act as a modest but crucial bridge to address the supply gap, effectively reducing the dependence on primary copper extraction and production. Furthermore, this approach will yield a net reduction in the adverse environmental consequences linked to mining activities.
Closing the Supply Gap
The looming supply gap is no secret, and it is possible to start acting now to minimize or even avoid the gap altogether. Organizations like the Copper Alliance, Wieland, and ElectraMetTM are just a few players working to solve the supply challenge. There are numerous avenues that can be taken to “narrow the gap”.
Improve Efficiency: When it comes to tackling the copper supply gap, one of the most straightforward yet impactful approaches is to enhance efficiency across the entire production and consumption cycle. By optimizing resource utilization and reducing consumption, we can swiftly generate positive outcomes. Furthermore, embracing new technologies to refine operational practices in industries leads to improved energy efficiency, extending the functionality of existing copper resources.
New Mines and Advanced Practices: Accelerating the development of new copper mines is vital to meet rising demand. Collaborative efforts among governments, mining companies, and stakeholders can streamline permitting, incentivize exploration, and promote responsible mining practices for a sustainable copper supply. Furthermore, optimizing extraction from low-grade ore through advanced technologies like innovative leaching and electrochemical methods unlocks new sources at a significant scale, making a tangible impact on the supply gap.
Improved Recycling and Recovery: Copper has the incredible ability to be 100% recyclable. Astonishingly, only an estimated 30% is recycled. Increasing this rate is a prime opportunity to fill the gap. The main challenge that is faced is in the realm of logistics. The recyclable materials are scattered and fragmented across various industries such as construction materials and consumer electronics. To drive this monumental change, it is critical to raise awareness and the importance of recycling alongside increased investment in recycling infrastructure. By igniting a collective sense of responsibility, individuals, businesses, and communities can be mobilized to embrace sustainable practices and actively participate in recycling efforts. Additionally, extracting copper from unconventional sources, like industrial wastewater, will need to play a role. Millions of pounds of copper are estimated to be wasted every year in the US alone by industrial facilities, a small but significant piece of the pie.
How ElectraMet is Stepping up to the Challenge
ElectraMet has forged a strategic alliance with Wieland to establish a cutting-edge, comprehensive framework aimed at sustainably extracting and recovering copper from a diverse range of industrial process water and wastewater streams. Leveraging advanced electrochemical technology, ElectraMet excels at precisely and selectively removing copper from complex water sources, including minute trace amounts. Wieland, renowned for its worldwide reach, operates a fleet of trucks, ensuring streamlined logistics and efficient transportation of the reclaimed copper to its state-of-the-art recycling facilities.