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Nuton: A better way to produce copper

We’ve developed a new technology that can produce copper in a more sustainable way

Last updated: 19 December 2023


The world needs more copper. From everyday appliances like toasters and washing machines, to the solar panels and wind turbines that will power a renewable future, copper is an ever more in-demand metal with every passing year.

As a copper producer, we've known for a while that we need to find better ways to meet this demand. But we need to do it responsibly.

So we've spent 30 years testing and developing a solution – one that's not only highly effective, but also sustainable, aspiring to have a real impact where it is deployed.

Resolution copper

Introducing Nuton: a lower impact way to produce copper

Nuton, a Rio Tinto venture, is a bio-heap leaching technology. Developed over 3 decades of research and development, it has the potential to produce copper from resources that were previously too technically challenging or expensive to process in any other way.

This unique technology achieves recovery rates of up to 85% from primary sulphide ore, the most abundant type of copper ore in the world – substantially higher than recoveries achieved by alternative leaching technologies.

Nuton doesn’t generate any tailings, and it eliminates the need for smelting and refining. In a single integrated process, we can produce a high-quality copper cathode on site.

With Nuton, we aspire to provide the copper the world needs, while meeting society’s higher expectations about the way it’s produced. At each site, we aim to produce the lowest footprint primary copper, while working with our partners at each site to create a positive impact in water, energy, land, materials and society.

The International Energy Agency predicts that copper will remain the most widely used metal in renewable energy technologies. They predict that to achieve net zero, total demand for copper will grow to 34.7 million tons by 2030, compared to 25 million tons of supply in 2022.

Potential economic and environmental benefits

  • Delivers high-quality cathode to meet increasingly sophisticated demand
  • Improves the economics of primary sulphide copper extraction
  • Monetises mineralised waste, tailings and low grades ore
  • Promotes remediation and site renewal by reducing acid rock drainage
  • Processes complex materials
  • Reduces energy, carbon and water consumption per unit produced, as compared to traditional process
  • Delivers a final product on site, reducing processing costs when compared to traditional production

How Nuton works

At Nuton’s core is a biological leach process that transforms copper-bearing rock or mine waste into 99% pure copper cathode.

Our leaching process starts by creating a heap – a very large pile of crushed rock. Depending on the site, that could be newly mined ore or previously mined rock that has been discarded as waste.

Added to the heap is a carefully cultivated culture of micro-organisms – the natural catalyst of our technology. Once added, they multiply, harnessing energy from the minerals in the rock to grow and concentrate the copper.

To support the microorganisms, we aerate the heap and add acidified water and, in some cases, naturally occurring minerals extracted from tailings waste. By creating favourable conditions for microorganism activity, we accelerate the copper leached from chalcopyrite in the heap material, enabling unparalleled copper recovery.

Behind the name

The name ‘Nuton’ draws from Sir Isaac Newton – the famous scientist, mathematician, physicist, and alchemist – an inspiration for the Nuton team to explore the boundaries of what is possible while remaining grounded in data, science and engineering.

‘Nuton’ also references the ‘new tonne’ of copper captured through this new technology, employing a new business model, and designed for a new, more sustainably minded, market.

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