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(Bloomberg) - The warnings are growing louder: the world is racing towards a desperate copper shortage. Humans are more dependent than ever on a metal we have been using for 10,000 years; new deposits are drying up, and copper has failed to experience the kind of breakthrough technologies that have transformed other commodities.
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Until now.
In what could prove to be a game changer for global supplies, a US startup says it has solved a mystery that has frustrated the mining world for decades. If successful, Jetti Resources' discovery could unleash millions of tons of new copper to power power grids, construction sites and vehicle fleets around the world, reducing and potentially closing the deficit.
At its simplest, Jetti's technology focuses on a common ore type that traps copper behind a thin film, making it too expensive and difficult to extract. The result is that vast amounts of metal have been stranded in surface mine tailings and undeveloped deposits over the decades. To crack the code, Jetti developed a special catalyst to destroy the layer, allowing rock-eating microbes to get to work releasing the trapped copper.
The technology has yet to be tested on a large scale. But the wealth at stake attracts some of the industry's most powerful players.
The BHP Group, the largest miner, is already an investor and has been in negotiations for months for a pilot plant at its Escondida crown jewel copper mine in Chile, according to people familiar with the matter. US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Inc. began implementing Jetti technology at a mine in Arizona this year, while competitor Rio Tinto Group plans to introduce a competing but similar process.
Miners are responding to an increasingly pressing problem. Copper is ubiquitous in the modern world, used in everything from phones and computers to water pipes and cables. And while the global push for decarbonization is based on phasing out dirty natural resources like oil and coal, an electrified future will need more copper than ever before.
Despite its importance, the world faces a growing risk of shortages in the coming decades. The best mines are aging and the few new discoveries are either in difficult-to-operate locations or have faced years of resistance to development.
The history of commodity markets shows that impending deficits tend to spur new discoveries and technologies. The US shale boom in the 2010s turned the oil market upside down, while breakthroughs in nickel processing turned supply forecasts on their head.
However, new discoveries of copper are becoming increasingly unlikely given the long history of mining - evidence of copper's use has been found as far back as at least 8,000 BC. in present-day Turkey and Iraq. This means that most of the world's major deposits have already been found and exploited; More than half of the world's 20 largest copper mines were discovered more than a century ago.
However, the long history of copper mining also means that huge amounts of metal lie at the surface in landfills.
The reason for this is a principle as old as mining itself: ore is dug out of the ground, the simplest metal is extracted, and anything too difficult or too expensive to work with is thrown aside as waste. In the last ten years alone, an estimated 43 million tonnes of copper was mined but never processed, worth more than $2 trillion at current prices, creating tremendous opportunity for anyone who can successfully recover these riches.
Of course, recycling mine waste is not a new concept as technology improves or prices rise. But that just wasn't feasible for certain types of ore. And breakthrough has opportunities far beyond landfills -- there are millions more tons underground that weren't profitable to mine.
Much depends on the willingness of mining companies to install Jetti equipment. But if the technology is fully adopted by industry, the company estimates that up to 8 million tonnes of additional copper could be produced each year through the 2040s -- more than a third of last year's total global mine production.
"The industry has accumulated this waste material forever," said Mike Outwin, Jetti founder and chief executive officer. "You've been trying to find an answer to that yourself for a couple of decades and couldn't."
So far, Jetti's process has only worked in a mine in Pinto Valley, Arizona. But the results have been so promising that three of the world's largest copper miners -- including BHP -- have bought stakes in the company. The latest fundraising was valued at $2.5 billion.
Copper giant Freeport says it also "initiated a commercial implementation at our Baghdad mine in Arizona this year to test the technology and will evaluate the results and continue dialogue with Jetti about other collaboration opportunities."
copper ore
So what is the problem that Jetti is trying to solve?
There are two main types of copper-bearing rock. The most common type, sulfide ores, are usually crushed, concentrated, and then converted into pure copper in a fire refining process. But that method doesn't work for oxide ores, and the industry's last major innovation came in the mid-1980s when it adapted an electrochemical process to extract copper from oxide ores, boosting supply significantly.
Now Jetti intends to apply its technology to recover copper from a common type of sulfide ore that could not be processed economically either way - the copper grade is too low to justify the cost of refining, while the hard, non-reactive coating prevented that the copper was extracted using the less expensive electrochemical or "leach" process.
Jetti worked with the University of British Columbia to develop a chemical catalyst that would break through the layer, allowing the copper to be released through leaching without the need for high temperatures.
While Jetti's process is the most advanced, Rio Tinto says it has also met the challenge in lab testing. Rio has offered its Nuton technology as a sweetener to junior mining companies in which it invests: if the smaller companies successfully develop their mining projects, Rio will use the Nuton process to increase profitability. Three such contracts have already been signed this year.
"If you look at the price level, the potential is huge," said Adam Burley, who leads the Rio project. "It's too big to leave on the table."
Rio wants Nuton to have produced about 500,000 tons of copper in total by the end of this decade, with hopes that the company will one day produce the annual equivalent of one of the world's top five copper mines.
Other large miners including Freeport, Codelco and Antofagasta Plc have all been working on internal solutions at their own mines, although little information has been given as to how successful these projects have been.
And there are limits to how much can be achieved. The focus is on North and South America and progress will depend on whether the technology can be used in the big mines.
But for BHP, the fact that it is talking to even a small upstart about the future of Escondida, the world's largest source of copper, is eye-opening.
Negotiations have been going on for months, although one of the sticking points in the talks was Jetti's insistence on installing and operating its own facility at the host mine, according to people familiar with the matter. The distribution of profits is also negotiated.
Meanwhile, Rio, BHP's junior partner at Escondida, argues that Nuton technology should also be considered, according to people familiar with the matter.
Jetti and BHP declined to comment on the specific negotiations or deals. “Jetti is very real. They are not laboratory tests or pilot plants. Jetti has been used commercially,” Outwin said. "Our partners will reap tremendous benefits from using our process, and Jetti will do well."
--Assisted by James Attwood and Mark Burton.
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