CEO view: New standards and innovations will support copper’s future


The first Chalcolithic or Copper Age occurred around the fifth millennium BC and is regarded as a transitional stage between the Neolithic period of the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Now, in 2021, we could well be entering a second Copper Age and once more, it is a transitional period. This time copper will be the key mineral in the global transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon and clean energy future, writes Thomas Schulz, Group CEO at FLSmidth.  

Copper’s use in eMobility, green energy production and infrastructure, the cooling of food and even vaccines means the industry is looking at a bright future. Copper, it is projected, will enjoy significantly higher demand compared to most other commodities. The outlook is very positive – the copper price is strong and it is backed by an agile and healthy industry.

This is something we see as a great opportunity – People will start to get a better understanding of what materials and resources are needed to move into a better future. Copper, of course, is a central part of this.

The significant increase in copper demand has placed the industry at the centre of the global economy. This means increased societal impact and changing expectations. Copper and copper production are more visible than ever and even greater transparency is being sought by end users.

Changing consumer expectations

But as a central player in the creation of a low-carbon economy, we also must take on new expectations that need to be formulated into opportunities. If we offer sustainable solutions and production methods for sustainable products, people will be proud to utilise copper in their phones and EVs.

As a premium provider of equipment, technology and knowledge to the copper mining industry, we acknowledge our key role in enabling and supporting best practices in the responsible production of copper through technology and digitalisation. This is why we embarked on our MissionZero ambition in November 2019: we are committed to enabling customers to move towards zero water and energy waste and zero emissions by 2030. 

A copper-bottomed outlook

Some analysts, such as S&P and Fitch, predict copper consumption will outstrip production in the coming years. Meanwhile, post-pandemic recovery hopes are also positively impacting prices – with some chatter even suggesting we could be at the start of a new supercycle.

Some analysts, such as S&P and Fitch, predict copper consumption will outstrip production in the coming years. Meanwhile, post-pandemic recovery hopes are also positively impacting prices – with some chatter even suggesting we could be at the start of a new supercycle.

But while copper demand is soaring, we are, at the same time, dealing with decreasing and complex ore grades.

It’s a simple equation. As ore grades decline, miners need to use more water and process more material. And that is just to keep up with production rates. With droughts and water scarcity becoming more common, water-related costs and risks for the copper industry are increasing.

A big part of our focus in mining is to help the copper industry reduce environmental impact and develop more sustainable solutions, practices and technologies – in particular when it comes to improving water recycling and energy productivity.

Dry-stack tailings is an existing and proven technology that offers increased water recycling, and thereby less need for freshwater intake. It also ensures a deposit that is dry and stable and superior to traditional wet tailings when it comes to safety and reduced risk of leakage. Our latest Automatic Filter Press, for instance, can recycle 95% of process water on large mine sites, while minimising maintenance downtime. It boasts 93% availability. Dry stack tailings is suitable not only for greenfield projects but also works well at existing mines.

More copper with less resource use

As ore grades decline, the importance of producing more with fewer resources has become the order of the day. This means copper recovery needs to optimised at brownfield sites. Mines are becoming deeper and ore more complex to extract and recover.

Cost-efficient and innovative solutions – such as our ROL leaching process which makes it possible to develop mineral deposits containing arsenic – will be required to maintain copper production levels at existing mines or take advantage of new orebodies.

Additionally, we are seeing this trend grow, with Rio’s recent tellurium investment at their Kennecott mine. This must be part of the copper industry’s drive for greater efficiency, productivity and ultimately profitability.

In the drive for greater efficiency, it is impossible to ignore digitalisation, which will be absolutely central in achieving sustainable, productive and socially acceptable mining.

Why? Because improved sustainability and better productivity go hand-in-hand. Digital will help the industry achieve the holy grail of producing more with less resource use and a reduced overall footprint.

Sustainability is a business opportunity

I have certainly written about this before, but it is worth repeating: Sustainable solutions do not need to come at the expense of business profitability. This is not a zero-sum game – sustainability can be the driver of future profit and opportunity. There is a commercial impact.

That is why a common denominator for all our innovative solutions is that they must be financially viable and give our customers an opportunity to grow their business while minimising their impact on the environment.

The growing importance of standards like The Copper Mark for mining

The world is changing. The modern consumer is increasingly interested in supply chains and providence of the minerals in their phones, their electric vehicles and their batteries. Mining is being forced to think with a more end consumer mindset, which means assuring end users and other stakeholders that the copper in their devices is mined ethically and sustainably.

Whoever does well in this area will also be the producers that succeed in the market.

This is why initiatives such as the Copper Mark are increasingly important and will significantly grow in importance. Across the mining industry, we must have trustworthy certification processes and standards that are well aligned with the LME, the OECD and similar organisations.

We, of course, are keen to help the industry achieve its goals of responsible copper production. But we are a large consumer of copper too. These factors are part of the reason why FLSmidth recently announced that we would be joining the Copper Mark as a Partner. It is central to our business and our industry. We are here to collaborate, to partner and to support you on this journey.

We need to change how we have mined copper for hundreds of years – and this will come only through new partnerships and co-creation within the industry, outside of the industry and together with third parties and universities.

I will conclude by calling upon our copper industry peers and customers to contact us and meet with us to discuss how we can take the next steps in developing the solutions that will create a bright future for the copper mining industry and a sustainable and productive second Copper Age.

(This article is based on Thomas Schulz's presentation at CRU at CESCO in April 2021, delivered in the session "Creating a competitive edge through environmental excellence".).