Resources: the Sources of Copper
How much copper is there?
Copper is a naturally occurring element. Present in the earth’s crust, in oceans, lakes and rivers, sources of copper range from minute trace amounts to rich mine deposits. Copper is an essential element meaning that all plants, fish and animals need copper to function properly. Copper is naturally present in the Earth’s crust, at a concentration of about 67 parts per million. While most mines operate with copper concentrations of between 0.2 and 0.8 %, some of the richest ore bodies, located in central to southern Africa, can contain 5–6% copper.
According to the US Geological Survey, since 1950, reports have regularly shown that there have always been, on average, 40 years of copper reserves and over 200 years of resources available. According to the latest data (USGS, 2013), known reserves of copper are around 680 million tonnes. Resources are much higher and short term supply limitations, which often result in upward price trends, act as a spur to the exploration of new deposits.
Reserves are deposits that have been discovered, evaluated and assessed to be profitable. Resources are far larger and include reserves (see right side menu), discovered and potentially profitable deposits, plus undiscovered deposits predicted from preliminary geological surveys. Copper resources are estimated to exceed 3,000 million tonnes (USGS, 2013), which does not include vast copper deposits found in deep sea nodules and submarine massive sulphides.
While current and future exploration will increase both reserves and resources, we must not forget that supplies will also be sourced from the substantial amount of copper that is already in use today. The recovery of end of life products, so-called ‘urban mining’, is one of the reasons why, today, 41% of the EU27’s copper demand is sourced recycling.
Within Europe, the largest known deposits are in Russia and Poland. Economic mines are also operating in Bulgaria, Finland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. In 2010, EU mine production totalled 855,316 tonnes of copper (source: BGS), around 5.3% of world production.
Technology has a key role to play in addressing many of the challenges needed to add new copper production. Innovation led by the copper industry will:
- increase the success rate of exploration both deeper underground as well as in less accessible regions of the world
- create safer conditions to operate in more challenging environments
- reduce both energy and water consumption
- enable the processing of more complex (multiple metallic and non-metallic constituents) ores.
Europe leads the world in copper recycling
Recycling plays an important role in copper availability since today’s primary copper is tomorrow’s recycled material. Throughout the last decade, about 41% of the EU’s annual copper use came from recycled sources. Future innovative policies and technologies should continue to contribute to resource efficiency in both the mining of “primary” copper and the recycling of “secondary” copper metals.
Mine production is vital to meet future demand
Since the mid-1960s, the global demand for refined copper has increased by over 250% (from 5 to 20 million tonnes). Ensuring that sufficient copper will be available to meet business and society’s future needs will require increased levels of recovery and recycling, as well as substantial investments in primary (mine) production.
It is estimated that two-thirds of the 550 million tonnes of copper produced since 1900 are still in productive use, according to global copper stocks and flows model developed by the Fraunhofer Institute (Glöser, 2013).