There is a rapidly evolving global trend toward a lower-carbon economy. The world is entering an era of carbon transparency and reporting that will drive decarbonisation in copper mining. Scientists advise that zero net carbon emissions are required by mid-century to avoid catastrophic damages. Copper is well placed to facilitate energy transformations through its real-world applications, but there is also a compelling need in the upstream segment of the copper mining process to achieve a zero-emission future. Initiatives in other metals supply chains and programmes such as the Copper Mark aim to assure commodity metal traders of the provenance of goods for supply into high value branded consumer items and renewable energy equipment purchased by governments.
The challenge the copper industry faces is to implement a structural shift towards improving and transforming the emission-intensive stages within the whole-of-cycle copper production process. Copper mining has remained mostly unchanged for many years, and although breakthrough innovation has occurred – for example adaptation of flotation and smelter efficiency techniques or leaching-solvent extraction – significant technological innovation in the industry has been slow to evolve.
The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering at the University of Sydney studied what is needed to advance a pathway to zero emissions in copper production. The research included a literature review of existing studies comparing relative emissions efficiencies of existing mine sites, comparisons of different technological ore and processing options, and barriers to the adoption of new technologies within the industry. Interviews with 12 experts in the international industry were included in the methodology to understand non-technical barriers and aspirations to tackle the technical issues. Warren Centre executive director, Ashley Brinson, says, “The industry faces a paradox in that copper is key to the overall global low carbon renewable energy challenge, but the supply chain delivering copper has much work ahead to create integrity in the end-to-end vision of a zero emission future and the pathway needed to deliver it.”
Brinson says, “Such a transformation pathway begins with analysing the existing copper mining extraction and processing practices to identify those stages that are emission intensive.”
Addressing only the upstream primary copper production process, the centre’s report, Zero Emission Copper Mine of the Future, investigates potential technologies that are either available or emerging that could assist in achieving a zero-emission copper mine.
A framework to test and improve innovation opportunities, and to establish a clear pathway to apply technological and innovative change, will go a long way to advance innovation uptake and accelerate the opportunity for a low emission future.
Technical solutions to copper mining problems
As an example of the study’s technical survey, there are a number of innovative technologies available within the materials movement processes. Haulage fleets can adopt payload management and optimisation systems that improve efficiency and fuel use. Integrated mine planning and optimisation systems use data analytics and simulations to improve productivity, scenario planning, efficiency and safety. Precision automated drill rigs improve drill alignment and accuracy, minimising waste rock movement and blasting dilution. Conveyor technologies including conveyor distributed drive technologies, vertical systems, and sensor based integrated ore sorting reduce overall power consumption and size of required extraction openings to accommodate traditional conveyor drive-heads.
Autonomous haul trucks use robotic command and control technologies to manage movement of haulage fleet offering safety, fuel consumption and productivity and maintenance benefits. Similar advanced technology ancillary equipment such as drones and digital cameras improve visual inspection and can optimise road maintenance and surveying.
Virtual reality technologies are coming to mine sites for applications in machine testing and data analytics prior to deployment. Augmented reality technologies allow operators to overlay digital visualisations onto a real-world environment, improving the quality of training prior to deployment of equipment, improving real time decision making, reducing equipment maintenance costs and improving safety.
Benefits of EVS within the copper mining process
Mining and material movement can use battery-power electric vehicles for lower maintenance costs, improved manoeuvrability and optimised automation opportunities. Overhead rail powered trucks are offered by leading mining equipment suppliers, and hybrid hydrogen electric vehicles are on the horizon, using hydrogen fuel cells to convert compressed hydrogen to support battery technology electric motors.
In addition to materials movement, the other technical emission impact themes explored in the report include discovery, ventilation, mineral processing and water.
A zero emission mine of the future approach must recognise the difference between incremental versus breakthrough innovation. There are different horizons of impact possible to enable producers to maintain a balance between economic viability and the challenges presented by the development of lower grade, deeper orebodies in the future with a zero-emission mindset.
The roles of renewable energy and environmental abatement technologies will not only continue to evolve but play an important role in addressing energy supply at a primary producer level.
Report findings regarding the copper mining process
This report examines the application of a sample set of incremental and evolving innovations that could accelerate action to identify, assess and deploy technologies to reduce emission intensive segments of the copper mining process. This includes the adoption of copper mining technologies that are available ‘off-the-shelf’ and which can be proven to provide emission efficiency gains, in recognition of financial considerations and economies of scale.
The report also explores whether the industry is fit for moon-shot or mission-based thinking to mobilise a zero-emission mindset. It examines a set of enabling levers to scale technologies, develop knowledge and skills, and to foster enhanced collaboration frameworks to achieve a leap forward in technology and innovation development.
The report intends to open a dialogue to advance a vision toward a zero-emission copper mine among producers, researchers, innovative mining equipment, technology and services (METS) providers, governments and stakeholders. Fostering collaboration is expected to provide considerable benefits to advancing knowledge, enhancing the broader perception of the industry, and providing an aligned pathway to a more sustainable future.
The research was funded by the International Copper Association Australia. The report acknowledges and draws from the insights of representatives from ICAA member companies and other stakeholders that have provided practical insights to new technology pathways that could propel the industry forward.