November 1999

Copper/Cobre 99 a Success

Copper Applications in Mining & Extraction

By Konrad J. A. Kundig

International Conference Confirms Producers' Strong Interest in New Technology

Every four years, mining executives and engineers gather at an international conference to present and listen to papers on the latest technology concerning copper production and use. They also hear market analysts give their views on factors that can affect future copper demand. The conferences, known as Copper/Cobre because they alternate between North America and Chile, have been conducted since 1987.

The Kennecott-Outokumpu smelter and converterThe Kennecott-Outokumpu smelter/converter exemplifies the new technology being applied in today's copper industry.

Copper 99/Cobre 99 was held recently in Phoenix, Arizona. This year, it took on a special significance in light of the global changes now underway in the copper industry. The Copper/Cobre conferences have become recognized as the conduits through which state-of-the-art copper technology is disseminated throughout the industry. As conference Co-Chairman Dr. Philip Mackey (Noranda) observed, that technology is crucially important. "The Copper/Cobre conferences have played an important role in serving the copper industry. Here, delegates learn not only about the latest best-practice technologies but also about where those technologies are headed. New technologies are making the industry more efficient and more environmentally sound."

Planning for this year's conference began in Santiago shortly after the close of Copper 95/Cobre 95. Readers who follow the copper market will recall that 1995 was the year when refined copper production surpassed 10 million metric tons for the first time and prices had risen to more than US$1.00 per pound. Booming Asian markets were consuming 35% of global production, and European and North American markets were also growing. New mines were opening and existing facilities expanding to meet demand, and there was widespread agreement that the copper industry had decisively put behind it the dark days of 1983, when Business Week published Sandra Dallas's famous article on the Death of Mining.

In the months preceding Copper 99/Cobre 99, however, copper was once again in oversupply and prices had sunk to historic lows. Demand was slowly rising, but Asia had barely begun to recover and European markets remained sluggish. Only in the United States was growth still reasonably healthy although many mines, smelters and refineries in Arizona and surrounding states were closing or downsizing operations. Worldwide, exploration had virtually ceased altogether. Hundreds of jobs were lost or threatened, and hanging over the general uncertainty were a spate of mergers and consolidations, several of which were taking shape right up to the week of the conference itself.

Conference organizers were understandably worried that the conference would lose its status as the leading international forum for copper technology. There was even talk of postponing it for a year or two. Committee member Peter Chen (Phelps Dodge) recalled those early concerns. "We were full of enthusiasm when we began working on Copper 99/Cobre 99 four years ago, but recent events in the industry gave a number of the organizers serious concern. Fortunately, the industry came through, as a few of us knew it would, and almost every author who had promised to present a paper was able to do so. The conference was a success, and all of our hard work was clearly worth the effort."

Copper 99/Cobre 99 drew 743 attendees from 28 countries, the second largest attendance ever. Fully 251 papers were presented on the hydrometallurgy, pyrometallurgy, electrorefining/electrowinning, mineral processing, economics, fabrication, applications and environmental aspects of copper. Some 1,260 volumes of conference proceedings sold out, and a second printing had to be ordered. In addition to mining and metallurgical engineers, the conference drew researchers, educators, government officials and industry consultants from around the world. A commercial exhibition (sponsored by Randol International, a global metallurgical consulting and educational organization) gave attendees an opportunity to view the latest products and services related to copper and byproduct extraction, including environmental management tools.

Conference general chairman Tony Eltringham (BHP Copper) summed up the over-all impression. "Despite considerable uncertainty over low prices and continuing consolidation and mergers, the conference enjoyed a large and enthusiastic attendance. Copper 99/Cobre 99 unquestionably gave us the best look at new copper processing technology available today. Only mining and exploration weren't represented, but perhaps these important topics can be included in future conferences."

Others even saw a beneficial connection between the conference's objectives and recent industry consolidation. Co-Chairman Carlos Diaz (INCO, University of Toronto) noted that "Consolidation in the industry means that there will also be more consolidation of technology, and that will benefit everyone. There should be no technological secrets in a commodity industry like copper because good technology reduces costs. That helps keep the industry healthy and makes the commodity more attractive to the consumer. It is precisely because we can share advanced technologies in a conference like Copper 99/Cobre 99 that the industry can remain competitive in difficult times like the present."

Noranda's Mackey agreed. "Globalization of a segment of commerce such as copper, and the true competition that accompanies this invariably increases pressures to reduce production costs. It is here that technology assumes its most important role; good technology helps get better returns. In addition, there is now a greater awareness than ever before of global environmental drivers and of what impact these will have on the copper-producing industry. We've also seen threats to copper usage through regulations dealing with copper in drinking water and to run-off water from plumbing systems and architectural applications of copper. Many papers presented at the conference described how these issues are being tackled. Copper 99/Cobre 99 put these new technologies on display. They must be implemented if the industry is to continue to grow."

And continued growth should be welcome. Several conference speakers expressed their opinions that, based on global economic scenarios including renewed improvement in Asian markets, there is ample reason to be optimistic about the future.

As the several hundred technical papers presented at Copper 99/Cobre 99 so emphatically demonstrated, new technologies are being implemented. The industry will certainly benefit from these advances, as will the environment and copper consumers throughout the world.

Copper 99/Cobre 99 was organized by The Chilean Institute of Mining Engineers (IIMCH), The Metallurgical Society of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society (TMS) and a 32-member committee representing the copper producers, fabricators, suppliers and consultants. The conference was sponsored by The Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME). Readers interested in obtaining copies of the conference proceedings should contact The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society at

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