Co-Dependencies in Copper: Production, Price and Innovation Trends 1900–2018

Additonal authors: . Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:

Proceedings, Vol. Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019, 2019

Bamber, Andrew

Between the early 20th Century and the present, the production of mined copper ore has increased from tens of millions of tonnes per annum to several billion tonnes per annum, an unprecedented increase. Contemporaneously, the average grade of mined copper ore has declined from over 2% to approximately 0.5%. Again, in parallel, the price of copper has increased dramatically to reflect the increasing cost of extracting and beneficiating such large amounts of low-grade ore. Within the period the copper price however exhibited several periods of intense volatility, driven by interrelationships between demand and supply, themselves strongly driven by periodic industry developments in the fields of exploration, ore extraction, mineral processing and extractive metallurgy. It is notable that these periods of intense innovation exhibit a strong correlation to preceding periods of price, demand or production volatility. This paper examines key trends in each theme between 1900 and 2018 and draws strong conclusions as to the interrelationship between them. INTRODUCTION The production of copper metal has increased from around half a million tonnes per annum to over fifteen million tonnes per annum over the course of the 20th Century. Contemporaneously, the average grade of copper ore mined has declined from over 2% to approximately 0.5% copper by weight. As a result, the volume of Run-of-Mine (ROM) copper ore required has increased from around ten million tonnes per annum to over a five billion tonnes per annum over the period, an unprecedented increase. The adage is that demand drives supply, that prices rise in times of high demand and/or short supply, and that prices fall when supply catches up with demand. The market sellers in biblical times knew this well; mediaeval market sellers equally. Dutch tulip sellers in the 1600’s experienced both in extremis — much to their dismay — and the great industrialists and early capitalists of the industrial revolution knew this also. Mining recently went through a cycle where investors and producers both believed that the “old” rules did not apply any more and that the industry was in a “supercycle” where prices would continue to rise on the back of increasing demand. However, as the GFC of 2008–2011 showed, this was not to be. Another adage says that we constantly innovate to lower costs of production. Is this true? Do we only innovate to lower cost? Has the true cost of producing copper actually gone down over the century? Or are there other balancing forces at play? Herb Kellogg, in his Centenary address to the American Institute of Mining Engineers (now SME), categorized two types of innovation: ‘Bigger and Better’, and ‘New Process’ (Kellogg, 1970). ‘Bigger and Better’ allows increased production at presumably lower cost; ‘New Process’ supports the same result at presumably the same scale, but at significantly enhanced efficiencies and (therefore) lower cost. It is suggested that both types of innovation are constantly and interchangeably required to achieve the kind of scale-up, at achievable operating and capital cost that the industry has achieved over the period. What can be shown, over this last Century and a bit, is that supply and demand are indeed inextricably linked, price and demand are linked, but so are price and cost of production. And the innovation required to sustain that weaves in between them all, cost-effectively increasing production capacity or lowering the cost of production at the same throughput, and sometimes both.
Mots Clés: Copper 2019, COM2019