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Copper mining has become a very important industry in today’s society. It is also one of man’s oldest commercial activities. There are many steps from finding a mine site to producing a product made of copper or a copper alloy. The mining industry has also had many important developments from the time the first mine was formed in Rio Tinto in 3000 B.C.
The earliest copper sources were globules and chunks of native copper found on the Earth’s surface. After we quickly exhausted the limited amount of native copper, we were forced to look underground for more sources. It started out as a simple and tiring process. In early civilizations slaves would break up rock layers to find copper, and other minerals. It would then be removed from tunnels and small pits where it was found by hand. The first significant breakthrough in the mining process came when smelting was discovered.
We have come a long way from those days. Today mining is a very high tech industry containing many expensive steps. The first step is exploration, or finding a good source of copper. This can take any where from 3 to 4 years and cost up to $7,000,000. Next is mine development. This stage also takes 3 to 4 years but costs much more, up to $75,000,000. The third stage is producing the mine. This costs almost $30,000,000 a year, and takes 9 to 21 years before it is completed. The final stage is called final reclamation, lasting around 3 years and costing $27,000,000. These 4 stages apply to both of the 2 most basic forms of copper ores found in nature; sulfide ores and oxide ores. It is a complicated process removing the copper from these two ores since it makes up only 1% of the rock material.
Mining copper sulfide ores requires a grinding process to separate the copper from the rest of the rock. The first step is to blast the mine and then haul the material to a copper ore mill.
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Mining copper oxide is a much less complicated process. It also starts out with blasting and hauling, but this is where the similarities end. The blasted material is hauled to large piles called heaps. The heaps are created over leak proof pads because they are sprayed with a mild sulfuric acid solution. This is the first step in the solvent extraction/electrowinning process (SX/EW). As the acid solution percolates through the pile, it picks up copper molecules. Once the acid has dripped to the bottom of the heap, the copper molecules are separated and the acid is returned to the top by pipes to repeat the process. The final step is the electrowinning process, in which 99.9+% of the pure copper is captured in cathode sheets through an electrolyte process.
Copper mining is a very complicated process made easier by today’s technology. It now takes very little manpower to extract and purify copper ores compared to the processes of the past. As current technology continues to advance, as will our mining techniques, allowing us to mine even more of our quickly depleting minerals.
www.azcu.org, 4 March 2003.
www.environment.phelpsdodge.com, 4 March 2003.