Copper is one of the oldest industries, yet it keeps evolving. Hereby a few trends observed over the past decades:
Growth: from 12 Mtpa in 1995 at a 10-year average price of 2,400 $/t to 25 Mtpa in 2020 at 6,800 $/t, the copper industry has grown from 29 B$ to 170 B$ or 7.3% per year. Volume growth represented 3% per year, while nominal price increased by 4.3% per year. As a result, copper production has grown from 0.1% nominal world GDP in 1995 to currently 0.2%.
Complexity of raw materials: ore grades are gradually decreasing and the complexity of concentrates is increasing. The same trend is observed for secondary raw materials. As a result, the industry evolves into an ever more complex metallurgy to extract copper and other valuable materials from these resource streams.
Integration: copper processing increasingly becomes a team effort. A network of interconnected, integrated smelters is developing.
Multi-metal: copper companies produce a multitude of metals. Over 20 materials can come out of a smelter.
Regulatory environment: regulations surrounding copper mining, smelting and refining are proliferating. The 2021 edition of ICSG's "Survey of Regulatory Developments Affecting Copper" has 369 entries.
Society's expectations: demands for sustainable operations and ESG performance are rising. The times are long past when mining districts were sacrifice zones for a global market.
Innovation: the copper sector continually innovates and reinvents itself to process increasingly complex material streams with less impact. Modern mines are a break from the past in terms of operational safety, water & energy use, automation, tailings management, ... See www.modernmine.org.
Markets: demand is shifting as well. Conductivity applications represent an ever greater portion of copper demand (currently 70%, not including thermal applications). The energy transition has become central to policy making, and electification offers a major pathway forward.
China: as for many commodities, the copper market is dominated by China who hosts half of the global smelting & refining capacity. China's policies on copper, e.g. on scrap trade, have major implications for the rest of the world.
Risk: considering the variation in environmental, social and governance concerns across geographies, a framework for resource governance has yet to emerge, and risks for operators are increasing. It takes close to 20 years to develop a new mine from exploration to first production. As the mining industry is capital-intensive, risk is a major cost factor.
Copper in the spotlight: compared to the 90s and the early part of this century, copper is no longer "the hidden metal". Copper is regularly covered in reports from regulatory agencies, featured in the scientific press and increasingly finding its way into popular culture.
Processing of Complex Materials in the Copper Industry: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11837-020-04255-9 (accessed June 7, 2022)
Extractive Metallurgy of Copper, 6th edition - https://www.elsevier.com/books/extractive-metallurgy-of-copper/schlesinger/978-0-12-821875-4 (accessed June 7, 2022)
Last update: September 20, 2022