The Coming Copper Peak

Elon Musk told a closed-door Washington conference of miners, regulators and lawmakers that he sees a shortage of EV minerals coming, including copper and nickel (Scheyder 2019).   Other rare metals used in cars include neodymium, lanthanum, terbium, and dysprosium (Gorman 2009).

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Richard A. Kerr. February 14, 2014. The Coming Copper Peak.  Science 343:722-724.

Production of the vital metal will top out and decline within decades, according to a new model that may hold lessons for other resources.

If you take social unrest and environmental factors into account, the peak could be as early as the 2020s

As a crude way of taking account of social and environmental constraints on production, Northey and colleagues reduced the amount of copper available for extraction in their model by 50%. Then the peak that came in the late 2030s falls to the early 2020s, just a decade away.

After peak Copper

Whenever it comes, the copper peak will bring change.  Graedel and his Yale colleagues reported in a paper published on 2 December 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that copper is one of four metals—chromium, manganese, and lead being the others—for which “no good substitutes are presently available for their major uses.”

If electrons are the lifeblood of a modern economy, copper makes up its blood vessels. In cables, wires, and contacts, copper is at the core of the electrical distribution system, from power stations to the internet. A small car has 20 kilograms (44 lbs) of copper in everything from its starter motor to the radiator; hybrid cars have twice that. But even in the face of exponentially rising consumption—reaching 17 million metric tons in 2012—miners have for 10,000 years met the world’s demand for copper.

But perhaps not for much longer. A group of resource specialists has taken the first shot at projecting how much more copper miners will wring from the planet. In their model runs, described this month in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, production peaks by about mid-century even if copper is more abundant than most geologists believe.

Predicting when production of any natural resource will peak is fraught with uncertainty. Witness the running debate over when world oil production will peak (Science, 3 February 2012, p. 522).

The team is applying its depletion model to other mineral resources, from oil to lithium, that also face exponentially escalating demands on a depleting resource.

The world’s copper future is not as rosy as a minimum “125-year supply” might suggest, however. For one thing, any future world will have more people in it, perhaps a third more by 2050. And the hope, at least, is that a larger proportion of those people will enjoy a higher standard of living, which today means a higher consumption of copper per person. Sooner or later, world copper production will increase until demand cannot be met from much-depleted deposits. At that point, production will peak and eventually go into decline—a pattern seen in the early 1970s with U.S. oil production.

For any resource, the timing of the peak depends on a dynamic interplay of geology, economics, and technology. But resource modeler Steve Mohr of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), in Australia, waded in anyway. For his 2010 dissertation, he developed a mathematical model for projecting production of mineral resources, taking account of expected demand and the amount thought to be still in the ground. In concept, it is much like the Hubbert curves drawn for peak oil production, but Mohr’s model is the first to be applied to other mineral resources without the assumption that supplies are unlimited.

Exponential growth

Increasing the amount of accessible copper by 50% to account for what might yet be discovered moves the production peak back only a few years, to about 2045 — even doubling the copper pushes peak production back only to about 2050Quadrupling only delays peak until 2075.

Copper trouble spots

The world has been so thoroughly explored for copper that most of the big deposits have probably already been found. Although there will be plenty of discoveries, they will likely be on the small side.

“The critical issues constraining the copper industry are social, environmental, and economic,” Mudd writes in an e-mail. Any process intended to extract a kilogram of metal locked in a ton of rock buried hundreds of meters down inevitably raises issues of energy and water consumption, pollution, and local community concerns.

Civil war and instability make many large copper deposits unavailable

Mudd has a long list of copper mining trouble spots. The Reko Diq deposit in northwestern Pakistan close to both Iran and Afghanistan holds $232 billion of copper, but it is tantalizingly out of reach, with security problems and conflicts between local government and mining companies continuing to prevent development. The big Panguna mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, has been closed for 25 years, ever since its social and environmental effects sparked a 10-year civil war that left about 20,000 dead.

Are we about to destroy the largest salmon fishery in the world for copper?

On 15 January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a study of the potential effects of the yet-to-be-proposed Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. Environmental groups had already targeted the project, and the study gives them plenty of new ammunition, finding that it would destroy as much as 150 kilometers of salmon-supporting streams and wipe out more than 2000 hectares of wetlands, ponds, and lakes.

Gold and Oil have already peaked

Copper is far from the only mineral resource in a race between depletion—which pushes up costs—and new technology, which can increase supply and push costs down. Gold production has been flat for the past decade despite a soaring price (Science, 2 March 2012, p. 1038). Much crystal ball–gazing has considered the fate of world oil production. “Peakists” think the world may be at or near the peak now, pointing to the long run of $100-a-barrel oil as evidence that the squeeze is already on.

Coal likely to peak in 2034, all fossil fuels by 2030, according to Mohr’s model

Fridley, Heinberg, Patzek, and other scientists believe Peak Coal is already here or likely by 2020.

Coal will begin to falter soon after, his model suggests, with production most likely peaking in 2034. The production of all fossil fuels, the bottom line of his dissertation, will peak by 2030, according to Mohr’s best estimate. Only lithium, the essential element of electric and hybrid vehicle batteries, looks to offer a sufficient supply through this century. So keep an eye on oil and gold the next few years; copper may peak close behind.

References

Gorman, S. August 30, 2009. As hybrid cars gobble rare metals, shortage looms. Reuters.

Scheyder, E. 2019. Exclusive: Tesla expects global shortage of electric vehicle battery minerals. Reuters.

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4 Responses to The Coming Copper Peak

  1. Oji says:

    Seems likely a peak in fossil fuel production would hasten mining production peaks in nearly every resource, as energy shortages/expense would immediately make many deposits uneconomical. As I cannot access the “Peak Copper” article, could you say if this was included in the “social and environmental” factors of the model?

  2. Todd Cory says:

    Another sign on the limits to growth…

  3. Thanks Alice,
    “When asked why coal production in Wyoming was not increasing as coal prices rose, Peabody CEO Greg Boyce described the situation as follows during Peabody’s third quarter conference call in 2013”:

    …people are going to have to start spending real cash to repair equipment that’s been parked, replace engines, rear motors and the like. That will provide a bit of an increment, but then in reality, people have not spent capital to replace equipment that ultimately reached the end of its useful life or spent capital to overcome the annual increase in stripping ratio that naturally occurs in the Powder River Basin“.

    Money can be printed, and being printed in trillions (see how coal companies in high debt, already. Divide debt over production, in tonnage, and one concludes the real cost of a tonne of coal is not $80 but rather likely $800+).

    This is the case with highly-depleted conventional oil, shale oil, tar sand and shale gas, too (see an observation on oilystuffblog).

    The real problem is in repairs, though!

    Repairs always take more Energy than the sum useful energy in all the coal, oil and shale – the technology repaired – can mine and extract!

    This has not been earlier noticed, despite being the de facto practice since the early steam engine – as there always were more reserves to allocate for repairs and keep the process of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ alive.

    However, this is no longer the case…

    Tainter attributed the problem to Complexity. Sven thought it an issue of a better insulation added to his home furnace. Javen thought it the more efficient, the more people-used-it – overlooking efficiency meant exponentially more energy expended in manufacturing more-efficient technology.

    Sadi Carnot, never thought of calculating what total energy is expended in constructing his reference ‘heat engine’ of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, assuming the engine will run indefinitely, as long as fuel is available. Wrong! Ask Peabody CEO Greg Boyce!

    Einstein has put his E=MC2 overlooking the colossal energy needed to be ‘burned’ upfront for his infamous equation to produce any useful energy, and then the steam turbine will wear and tear like any steam turbine in a coal power plant – leading humanity to the biggest blunder of all times: the nuclear and fusion power industry.

    Hubert discounted repairs, entirely, or he wouldn’t think that solar panels are viable energy solution.

    Instead, he needed to draw his infamous Hubert’s curve this way – link.

    Today, if one asked, how many times this car has made of a sum useful energy greater than the total energy put into constructing and maintaining it – before reaching the end of its useful life?

    The answer would likely come: of course, many folds – despite the person asked can see by naked eyes almost all the energy put into making the car is still evidently present in the obsolete car structure, weighing and parts-counting almost identical to when the car has left the assembly line – anew!

    “No energy store holds enough energy to extract, collect and utilise an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.

    No energy system can produce sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future”.

  4. Bill Chaffee says:

    Copper theft has been in the news recently. Usually copper wiring. Pennies used to be solid copper and before that we had silver dimes quarters half dollars and dollars.