From the days of antiquity, copper has been used for its many benefits: tough but malleable, corrosion-resistant and recyclable, and an excellent conductor of heat and transmitter of electricity. Copper is also antimicrobial, helping to keep us safe from infection.
Today, we use copper in pots and pans, in the water pipes in our homes, and in the radiators in our cars. Copper also plays an essential role in computers, smartphones, electronics, appliances and construction.
Copper also promises to play an essential role in the transition to the low-carbon economy. Just one 1MW wind turbine, for example, uses three tonnes of copper. And electric vehicles have a copper intensity 3-4 times higher than traditional vehicles. As a result, global demand for copper is set to grow 1.5%-2.5% per year, driven by electrification and increasing requirements for renewable energy.
Rio Tinto Copper
Our very first mine was a copper mine on the banks of the Rio Tinto river, in Andalusia, Spain – bought in 1873 by a British-European investor group led by Scottish entrepreneur Hugh Matheson.
Today, our copper operations around the world are at various stages in the mining lifecycle, from exploration to rehabilitation. At each of our copper operations, we use leading-edge technologies that drive safe, efficient and productive methods of extracting, processing and refining copper, supplying customers in China, Japan and the US.
Oyu Tolgoi, in the South Gobi region of Mongolia, is one of the largest known copper and gold deposits in the world. When the underground is complete, it will be the fourth-largest copper mine in the world.
Our Kennecott mine is a world-class, integrated copper mining operation located just outside Salt Lake City, Utah, in the United States. Our Kennecott mine produces gold, silver and tellurium as byproducts of our copper mining. We’ve also progressed pre-feasibility studies further push back the northern wall to extend open-pit mining beyond 2032, and are advancing studies to support an underground mine below the existing open pit, due to be complete by 2024. Potential underground mining would occur concurrently with open pit operations and result in increased copper output.
In 2019, after 75 years of operation, Kennecott retired its coal-fired power plant in Magna, Utah. Power for the operation will come from renewable energy certificates purchased from Rocky Mountain Power – primarily from wind and solar resources.
Closing the plant and acquiring renewable energy certificates will remove more than one million tons of carbon dioxide every year from Kennecott’s Wasatch Front operations, reducing its annual carbon footprint by as much as 65%. The renewable energy certificate program is Green-e energy certified, and meets the environmental and consumer-protection standards set by the Center for Resource Solutions.
In 2020, our Kennecott operations became the first producer to be awarded the Copper Mark, the copper industry’s new independent responsible production programme. To achieve the Copper Mark – developed according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – our Kennecott copper was assessed against 32 criteria covering Environment, Community, Business and Human Rights, Labour and Working Conditions and Governance.
In the US, the Resolution Copper Project reached a significant milestone in 2019 with the release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) which will allow us to continue progressing one of the world’s most significant copper deposits towards development.
And in 2020 we announced the maiden Resource at Winu, a copper and gold project in Western Australia with the potential to become a large-scale operation over time.
Ingenuity at work
Deep inside our Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, western United States, we use a remote operated vehicle team – including drones and other equipment – to help keep people safe and save the business money. The newest team member is a robot named Mark II, designed and built by our chief drone pilot, Matt Key, using an over-the-counter rock crawler and a 3D printer. Matt’s ingenuity meant Mark II cost a mere $10,000 to build, a fraction of the $100,000 it could have cost to buy a similar robot.
Mark II squeezes into small spaces and manoeuvres over tough terrain to test oxygen levels and collect soil and water samples.
Sending in a robot to check hazards in advance has obvious safety benefits – and can also save the business time and money. The team is already designing Mark II’s little brother, Mark III.