July 06, 2013
Peak Copper Pushed Further Out

Which minerals and forms of energy will limit economic growth and when will each do so? Oil prices are now high enough to retard economic growth. Will oil become a bigger limit in the future? When will other energy sources (notably electricity in batteries) become major substitutes for oil? Do we only need to worry about oil in the next 30 years? Some Australian academics think copper won't run out in 30 years.

New research shows that existing copper resources can sustain increasing world-wide demand for at least a century, meaning social and environmental concerns could be the most important restrictions on future copper production.

Researchers from Monash University have conducted the most systematic and robust compilation and analysis of worldwide copper resources to date. Contrary to predictions estimating that supplies of this important metal would run out in around 30 years, the research has found there are plenty of resources within the reach of current technologies.

Ore grade is the biggest factor in determining the cost of copper extraction because more energy must be expended to concentrate copper from lower grade ores. Therefore in the long run the cost of energy will play a very big part in determining whether low grade ores can be mined. Really cheap fusion energy would make very low grade ores useful for many kinds of minerals.

The database, published in two peer-reviewed papers, was compiled by Dr Gavin Mudd and Zhehan Weng from Environmental Engineering and Dr Simon Jowitt from the School of Geosciences. It is based on mineral resource estimates from mining companies and includes information vital for carbon and energy-use modelling, such as the ore grade of the deposits.

Environmental concerns are playing an increasing role in limiting copper extraction.

Despite examples like the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, where mining has continued despite widespread environmental degradation that has affected thousands of residents, non-economic factors have constrained some mining operations and the researchers believe this will become increasingly important in the near future. An example is the Pebble copper-gold project in Alaska, which after more than a decade still doesn't have the necessary approvals due to the environmental and cultural concerns of nearby residents.

A nation with higher living standards will set the bar higher for mines.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 July 06 08:18 AM 

Ronald Brak said at July 6, 2013 6:53 PM:

I'm pretty sure copper won't run out anytime soon. I live a few hours drive from huge deposits of copper. It's not high grade ore, all the good stuff was mined out a century ago, but there is still a huge amount of copper there, it will just take a lot of effort and energy to extract. All else equal this will make the copper more expensive, but it's there if we need it. And with energy costs coming down (when externalities are taken into account wind and solar are much cheaper than coal) the energy required to extract it should be there. And then there's the fact that once China, India, Nigeria, etc. finish industrialising demand for coppeer and many other materials will fall. It can be argued that we are at or close to peak demand for steel, concrete, copper, and quite a few other materials now, depending on how close China is to completeing industrialisation and whether or not they have enough transformers, powerlines, buildings and roads to make them want to reduce construction and how fast demand will pick up in other developing countries. Improved material technology allowing people to do more with less also plays a role.

Brett Bellmore said at July 7, 2013 7:19 AM:

There are still enormous amounts of VERY high grade copper "ore" in the Keweenaw peninsula of Michigan. In fact, the only reason production ceased was that it was TOO high, much of the copper was present in the form of native, metallic copper, which made production by modern techniques somewhat difficult, and levels of silver in the ore are so high that metallic silver also occurs there. (In fact, I have a piece of 'halfbreed' in my collection, native copper on one end, native silver on the other.)

If the price goes up high enough, production will resume there.

Bee said at July 7, 2013 9:55 AM:

Randall, when will you stop pushing "peak" hysterias? I recall our foolish peak oil notions. This toe of thinking is not based on science but fear. The peak is always out there like a monster waiting to consume us.

REN said at July 7, 2013 11:36 AM:

Actually, economic causation goes like this, and of course it is not taught in schools.

Earth and Life are gifts. They are free gifts, and lets call them gifts from God. Man picks up a rock and makes it a tool. Therefore, his labor energy made the tool in conjunction with a free gift from Earth. So, the equation is: Earth+Labor = tool. To make higher order tools, the equation expands: Earth + Labor + Tools = Machines. Expanding further: Earth + labor + machines = all economic output.

So, all economic output is related to only two variables: Earth and Labor.

Our money system, and our economic system has only passing relationship to this reality. For example, our money is created as debt, which is about four orders removed from labor. The debt is based on assets, which only loosely relates to labor energy. Our money system, and its contradictions drive a lot of the peak hysteria. The feedback in this system allows many disconnects.

To extract earths free gifts, then obviously who owns the lands and regulatory systems, etc. will determine the extraction costs. Transportation networks that allow the "extraction" to be removed economically need to be part of the equation. Historically, predatory rent behavior has been enabled with people like the Rockefellers controlling land (owning mineral rights) controlling transportation (influencing rail road) and money (owning credit producing banks).

So, any discussion of peak costs, brings on a whole slew of other economic factors that are very large contributors. These factors are not discussed or even admitted to by our current "thinking" population, because they are not taught in schools. I suggest they are not taught because the money creation mechanism, that of private banks in concert with corporate oligarchy, spends a large amount of their profits on propaganda (and adjusting the law), especially to put a brain lock on the economic profession, and to control ignorant sheeple. The sheeple must be ignorant by definition, since much information is not accessible or said available information is propaganda.

EE DUDE said at July 7, 2013 8:35 PM:

On the demand side, we have many other viable alternatives to copper. Two major uses of copper are for plumbing supply tubes in buildings and for electrical wiring. For supply tubes, cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) already looks like a viable and mature technology. It has many labor advantages during installations and appears to be as reliable as copper in typical usage. Sadly, its adoption is often opposed by trade unions despite being recognized by the national plumbing codes. The trade unions have successfully impeded its adoption being recognized by local building inspectors and have found common political ground with "environmental groups" opposed to "plastic" and downplay the major destruction caused by copper ore mining. PEX's primary economic input is natural gas for the polyethelyene feedstock. We seem to have plenty of natural gas for now.

For electrical wiring, copper can be replaced with Aluminum. Aluminum has a much lower cost per unit ampacity (except at higher frequencies) than copper. Aluminum prices will tend to track the cost of electricity (which has been nearly constant at $0.04/kwh) whereas the dominant cost drivers for copper will be liquid fuel, labor (for the trucks), and the inherent supply/demand effect scarcity of high-grade ores. Aluminum can be used in transformers. However, it is a bit more difficult to work with for building wiring because of it's tendency to expand/contract more thermally than copper and it's tendency to oxidize requiring greater care during installation to ensure corrosion and galvanic compatibility.

Ronald Brak said at July 11, 2013 4:34 PM:

Just to be clear with regards to my earlier comment, I am not saying that copper and other resources becoming harder to extract is not a problem, I'm just saying it's not as big a problem as some people think. Neither clapped out oil wells or depleted copper mines seem likely to do in civilisation.

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