March 17, 2023
No longer a “Stranded Resource” —
New copper leaching technology is unlocking vast reserves of copper.
For 10,000 years, copper has been mined the same way: by digging a hole in the ground, chipping out the copper, and then melting it down to refine it.
But now that’s starting to change — new technology is making it possible to pull copper drip-by-drip out of the ground using a technique called leaching. Instead of shipping the rock away to undergo the expensive refining process, the rock can be piled into heaps right there at the mine and leached of its copper using a sulfuric acid solution. The copper flows right out of the rock in streams of bright blue water.
This blue water can pull copper out of low-grade copper reserves — a feat that was impossible just a few years ago.
While commercial-grade heap leaching operations have been around since the 1950s, it wasn’t until recently that we’ve seen a true shift toward leaching as a primary way to mine copper.
Here’s why leaching has become such a gamechanger: it can extract copper from a variety of copper grades, including from rock that’s too low grade to justify sending to the refinery.
When you consider that the overwhelming majority of the world’s copper is trapped in these low grades that are impossible (or too expensive) to refine, that unlocks a massive wealth of copper that would otherwise be left sitting around in piles of waste rock.
And it gets better. New solvents (also called “reagents”) are providing flexibility to the recipe, making it possible to leach copper out of both copper oxides and copper sulfides (the two kinds of copper) at the same time. While the details run a bit long on how this chemistry works, the short version is that these 2-for-1 innovations are bringing down costs and bringing up levels of copper extraction.
But the most significant advancement comes from new leaching techniques that can pull copper out of a miner’s least favorite type of rock: chalcopyrite. (To say that word correctly, just replace the C’s with K’s.)
This chalky, dusty, crumbly type of rock disintegrates in your hand and is depressingly bland. It’s the trash of the mining industry. It’s so unloved that it’s put into piles that become the size of mountains and left to bake in the sun, never to be thought of again. And yet, an estimated 80% of the world’s copper is stuck in this chunky waste rock. That is, until now.
The “Holy Grail” of Copper Mining
Unlocking chalcopyrite has been a decades-long endeavor.
Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies (and the 116th largest company in the world overall) has been working on this problem for more than 30 years. And during that time, they’ve come far in improving potential leaching solvents — and yet, most of them have never been tested commercially. It’s only in the last few months that we’ve seen them appear in the corporate presentations for copper mining companies.
Now, you may be wondering, if this technology is so earth-shattering, why didn’t anyone roll it out before now?
The answer is that today’s spike in copper demand is eating up the last of the high-grade copper reserves — and those will never be replenished. Most of copper’s low-hanging fruit has already been picked.
As Mike Outwin, the CEO of an innovative copper leaching firm called Jetti Industries, told S&P Global:
“In the copper industry, you've got declining grades. So, there's less copper per ton of ore that's getting mined at operations these days. That's not going to get better. Grades are going to continue to decline. Mining companies aren't finding super deposits like they used to in the 20th century and even at the beginning of this one.”
And climbing prices are also a powerful motivator. Now that copper prices are bumping up against highs, they can now support the cost of all this new innovation.
In the US, there’s also been a push (and billions of dollars in subsidies) to move mining back to America, where the supply chain is better protected from the disruption of wars, pandemics, and international politics. Raw materials like copper have become too essential to leave exposed to those outside forces.
Copper leaching holds the answer to each and every one of these serious problems. It’s potential is so powerful, in fact, that Jetti’s CEO Mike Outwin even goes so far as to call it the long lost “‘Holy Grail’ of copper mining.” And the timing couldn’t be better.
Demand Is Going to Increase for Decades to Come
It’s a fact: copper stockpiles are in danger of disappearing. This is for a number of reasons...
- There are 707,000 miles of copper in the US power grid — and as you’ve likely noticed, the entire system is in desperate need of an upgrade. China, India, and other major nations are all doing the same
- Copper is in everything from your cell phone to your blender. It’s in the water pipes of industrial buildings. And millions of miles of electrical wire
- And last but not least, it’s an essential material for electric vehicles. And the impact to the raw materials industry is much greater than you might expect
For example, Tesla uses more copper than any other battery metal in its cars. They currently consume 45,000 tons a year. But that could grow to 20 times that by 2035 if their aggressive expansion plans are successful.* EVs are only possible with a stable, secure supply of copper. And when you factor in the growth from all the other car manufacturers, you’ve got an enormous supply gap.
The demand for raw materials like copper is going to create a decades-long supply gap.
So it’s significant that copper is able to tap into the “stranded resource” of its waste rock to fill the gap.
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Turning Trash into Treasure
This new copper leaching technology changes the entire calculus. And here’s where it gets exciting: leaching operations can start with rock that’s already been mined. What was once useless chalcopyrite is now a feasible mining material.
There’s certainly enough of it sitting around…
Almost 50% of all mining waste comes from copper**, and there are a whopping 4.3 gigatons of tailings produced every year***.
Copper leaching can squeeze copper out of decades of tailings, and at minimal expense.
As one industry head put it:
“It’s the equivalent of bringing on a new mine without having all the capital cost****.” — Freeport McMoRan President Kathleen Quirk
I’m sure you’re wondering by now: so how does a vat of blue water get turned into a hard metal sheet of copper?
The process is surprisingly simple and takes almost no time at all.
It’s all thanks to the magic of chemistry.
From Blue Water to Pure Copper:
Solvent Extraction Electrowinning (SX-EW)
It works like this: two metal rods are dipped into the blue water, and then they zap the whole thing with electricity. The bits of leached copper are attracted to the negatively-charged rod, and collect themselves into a neat sheet of metal. In a matter of hours the 1% copper solution solidifies into a copper plate that’s 99.99% pure.
Miners and geologists refer to this process of solvent extraction electrowinning by the abbreviation “SX-EW.”
An illustration of how SX-EW turns pregnant leach solution into plates of pure copper.
Here’s how a vat of foamy blue water gets turned into plates of pure copper:
- First, the blue water (which is officially known as “pregnant solution”) is put into a tank with two electrodes: one anode (positive) and the other cathode (negative). The electrodes are usually made of stainless steel.
- When an electric current is applied to the electrodes, the copper ions in the solution are attracted to the cathode and stick to it, forming a layer of pure copper.
- The longer the electric current is applied, the thicker the layer of copper on the cathode will become.
- Once the sheet reaches its max thickness, it’ll be pulled up out of the solution. Voila! A hardened sheet of shiny copper.
- And then the bonus: any other valuable elements floating in the solution (such as gold and silver) are pulled to the bottom of the vat for collection later. (I’ll cover more on this bonus process in later articles — it, too, is adding to the benefits of copper leaching. Especially from chalcopyrite, where the tiny amounts of gold and silver have long been thought to be unrecoverable.)
1% pregnant leaching solution is turned into 99.99% pure copper plates.
What Fracking Did for Oil… Leaching Will do for Copper (And Without Any of the Nasty Side Effects!)
It wasn’t long ago that America was dependent on the rest of the world for oil. And across the globe, industry analysts warned of the potential of “Peak Oil.”
But fracking changed all of that. In a few short years, America went from a needy energy importer at any cost… to complete energy independence with plenty of surplus for all. (And smart investors were able to pull in record profits.)
The recent advances in leaching technology have the potential to do the same for copper mining.
But unlike fracking, which is a bad word in many circles due to its negative impact on the landscape and potential to spoil the environment and ruin lakes and rivers, copper leaching doesn’t have any of those problems.
In fact, copper leaching has the lowest environmental impact of any other mining method — and as the industry shifts in that direction, mining’s overall impact will continue to improve.
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The Quest for New Leaching Solvents Continues
New leaching solvents are being tested as you read this — quite literally, in fact. Tubes filled with test soil from around the world are fed test solutions drip-by-drip, 24/7.
I just returned from a visit to a massive warehouse in Arizona where these secret test solvents are housed. Every minute that passes, more test solvents drip through the tubes you see here and into samples of test rock that’s been sent in from around the world.
New leaching solvents are tested night and day at this warehouse in Arizona.
There’s rock from Argentina, dug up by Canadian mining billionaire Rob McEwan, with a range of different soils taken from his wide portfolio of mining projects at McEwan Mining (NYSE: MUX).
And rock from a copper mine in Peru that’s run by Regulus Resources (OTC: RGLSF).
And then samples from across Arizona, the breadbasket of America’s copper industry — and ground zero for a Made-in-the-USA copper future.
This includes samples from Excelsior Mining’s (TSX: MIN) (OTC: EXMGF) Gunnison copper project.
The recipe for each solvent is being tweaked for maximum leaching strength. And once it’s ready, the recipe will be sent back to the mining site to undergo additional feasibility studies.
Leaching operations are about to spread one-by-one to new mines, unlocking their trash tailings and heaps of chalcopyrite.
I’ve been closely following each step of the development — including where I bcan profit as an investor. In fact, I’m in the process of writing a special report that contains all the details on which companies will benefit.
And I have a favorite: it’s the small copper mining company featured in the photos above.
It has a 10-year jump on everyone else, which is why it’s the firm conducting all of the tests, both for its own copper reserves, as well as that of all of its competitors. They’re creating a leaching solvent recipe for each mine — and will reap the benefits of everyone’s success. As copper leaching takes center stage, as it's likely to do, they’ll be the first to see profits. (I’ll explain more on this in the weeks to come.)
After 10,000 years of chipping away at the world’s dwindling high-grade reserves, copper leaching is the technological breakthrough that’ll make it possible to supply the future.
P.S. I also encourage you to take a look at why uranium demand is soaring (and delivering record profits to uranium investors). Uranium has been affected by the same major forces that are pushing up the price of copper. And since most of America’s uranium still comes from Russian-controlled sources (it’s one of the few materials exempt from sanctions), there’s been a multi-billion dollar push to bring uranium mining back to North America — making it the perfect time to buy into these US and Canadian-based mining projects.
Editor, Daily Profit Cycle