EXISTING copper resources will sustain increasing world demand for at least a century, refuting claims that mineable supplies could run out within 30 years, according to new research.
After compiling and analysing a database of current worldwide copper resources, Monash University researchers concluded there were ample resources within the reach of existing technologies.
Published in two peer-reviewed papers, the database focussed on mining company resource estimates and included vital information for carbon and energy use modelling, such as the ore grade of the deposits.
Monash University School of Geosciences researcher Dr Simon Jowitt said the database could transform the industry’s understanding of copper availability.
“Although our estimates are much larger than any previously available, they’re a minimum,” he said.
“In fact, figures for resources at some mining projects have already doubled or more since we completed the database.
“Further, the unprecedented level of detail we’ve presented will likely improve industry practice with respect to mineral resource reporting and allow more informed geological exploration.”
Monash Environmental Engineering researcher Dr Gavin Mudd said the large amount of available copper meant that social and environmental concerns would be the most important restrictions on future production.
“Worker’s rights, mining impacts on cultural lands, issues of benefit sharing and the potential for environmental degradation are already affecting the viability of copper production and will increasingly come into play,” he said.
Non-economic factors have constrained some mining operations and the researchers believed this would become increasingly important in the near future.
Resource nationalism, labour unrest and environmental activism have become key threats to future production.
For example, protests have mounted against the $5 billion Conga gold and copper mining project which is set to drain three lakes in northern Peru’s Cajamarca region.
Construction on the Newmont
Mining-led project – which has resources of about 6.5 million ounces of gold and 1.7 billion pounds of copper – has been on hold since protests began last year.
“Pressingly, we need to acknowledge that with existing copper resources we’re not just going to be dealing with the production of a few million tonnes of tailings from mining a century ago; we are now dealing with a few billion tonnes or tens of billions of tonnes of mine waste produced during modern mining,” Mr Mudd said.
The researchers stated they would undertake detailed modelling of the life cycles and greenhouse gas impacts of potential copper production, and a more detailed assessment of the future environmental impacts of mining.
They would also create similar databases for other metals, such as nickel, uranium, rare earths and cobalt, to paint a comprehensive picture of worldwide mineral availability.