Copper use is set to double within the next 20 years which will force a rethink of just how deep miners will need to go, and how, for the red metal.
International Copper Association Australia Chief Executive, Mr John Fennell, said the converging demand and mining technique challenges were driving an emerging vision of just how copper deposits might be mined in the future.
“We are talking automated mines at least two kilometres deep, urban high-tech control hubs, armies of sensors, robot machines and all powered by clean energy,” commented Mr Fennell.
“It is potentially a realistic vision of how copper will have to be commercialised going forward,” he said.
Most of the world’s largest operating mines are more than 75 years old, with ore levels dropping in spite a rise in demand.
Mr Fennell believes that copper use will be 26 million tonnes a year by 2040, double what it is today.
“That means miners will need to get more from less, or, send them searching much deeper than they have ever gone before and in riskier, hard to access areas,” says Mr Fennell.
Mr Fennell said technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Virtual or Augmented Reality, intelligent software, robotic machinery and vast armies of advanced sensors would be essential to produce safer, greener copper with minimal impact on people and the environment.
“Getting copper out and up from to one or two kilometres underground would have been science fiction once,” Mr Fennell said.
“But running a completely automated mine with intelligent machines and haulage from an urban centre is now possible,” he said.
“Processing all the ore underground is also closer using new catalytic refining methods and automated sorting, with clean energy powered systems taking the ore to the surface for intelligent transport.
“The copper mines of the future will rely on terabytes of data streamed from Internet of Things-backed sensors to manage, monitor and make the ore,” Mr Fennell said.
It is predicted that the mine workforce will also shift from more male and fly-in/fly-out practices to a more diverse urban-based personnel pool more attuned to technology.
“The World Economic Forum has already forecast that digitalisation will boost mine health and safety, saving an estimated 1,000 lives and avoiding more than 44,000 injuries over 10 years.”
Mr Fennell warned that the roll out of copper mining technology had not been, however, as rapid or wide spread as first predicted.
“There have been some big wins in intelligent transport, automised software systems and clean energy, particularly by big miners with deep pockets.
“However, we need to ensure sure technology is identified, tested and implemented as widely as possible,” he said.