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The Copper Conundrum
Copper is at the heart of everything electric. It is no exaggeration to say, that our entire “renewable, clean, green” future hinges upon its uninterrupted supply. In fact, according to a recently released report, we would need to mine more of it than what we did during the course of our entire written history, in order to transform the world economy to using electricity alone. This is not to mention the fact that this amount of material would only cover the build-out of the first generation of wind and solar power plants (together with the many electric engines, batteries, inverters, transformers etc) needed for the change. Where do we get all that copper from? A riddle? To some, maybe, but not for those who dare to look into the eye of the monster standing in between achieving our net zero dreams and the actual reality.
As usual, amateurs (and unfortunately I have to list our entire leadership class trained in law and economics here) discuss strategy, while professionals (whose job is to actually turn this clean green Technutopia into reality) deal with logistics. Those who haven’t lost all their critical thinking skills and do not consume government propaganda as scientific fact, should immediately start asking their superiors talking about the green transition: how we are about to do this…?
This is an extremely important question. Why? Well, because if it turns out that the proposed “clean, green, renewable” Technutopia is physically unattainable, then we would immediately need to start working on an alternative, a plan B if you like, before we cook ourselves soft and tender, or run out of the materials which could be used for a better purpose than to maintain industrial civilization eating this planet alive.
So, why talk copper? Why is this metal so important? First, it has an unparalleled electric and heat conductivity; an essential feature for everything electric. Actually, the biggest loss by far in any (and every) electric equipment is waste heat generated by the internal resistance of wires and the myriad of electric components. It’s not hard to see how replacing copper with lower quality materials (like aluminum) in wires, and other critical components will come at a serious drop in performance — if it is technically possible at all. Except for high voltage cables hanging in the air from tall poles, it is hard to think of any application where the excess heat generated by electrical resistance would not damage the system to the point of catching fire, or degrading its performance considerably. If there is a perfect case to slay the myth of infinite fungibility — the core tenet of the neoclassical economic religion — it is the case of copper.
Another myth, perpetuated by our uneducated leadership class, is that recycling and the circular economy will solve this problem anyway. Well, newsflash, many parts and components built into wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles are not designed with recycling in mind. In fact, the industry tends to cramp as many features into one part as it can, in order to reduce assembly costs. This approach often results in parts with monstrous complexity, permanently gluing and welding sub-components made from various materials into one, with plastic often injection molded around them. Put more simply: they are near impossible to recycle, and due to their complexity, need skilled manpower to disassemble first, before the excess plastic can be burned off or dissolved in aggressive solvents. Toxic waste (fumes and liquids) are often generated during this process, not to mention the need for excess energy and the complicated logistics network involved in performing this feat. In many cases recycling companies thus tend not to bother and pour faulty parts into land fills instead. The gains are very little for the huge effort and energy poured into recycling.
This is not to mention the fact, that first we would need to build out the first generation of electric devices, before we could start recycling them at the end of their lifecycles (ten to twenty years at max). The existing infrastructure of soon to be unused oil rigs, pipelines and refineries (built out of mostly steel) serve as a very poor donor for electric components. There is only one option left if our goal is to electrify the world: we must mine the necessary materials — including copper —first. (If you have read so far, now you understand why I always put scare quotes around “renewables”… They are “re-buildable” at best, but knowing what I know today, I would not even call them that.)
…and while the energy coming from the Sun and the wind might indeed be infinite, our ability to build machines transforming this energy into electricity is not.
Here comes the study I linked above into the picture. Let me list some tell tale facts and figures here to illustrate the task at hand. Our global reserves of copper amounts to some 880 million tons, however, a transition to an energy system powered by a combination of “renewables”, nuclear and hydro would require us to mine 4575 million tons — some five times the amount we have located so far. Considering 2019 production levels, and presuming we would magically discover the missing amount, we would still need 189 years to mine the needed amount for the first — I repeat: the first — generation, then run out of copper. Globally and completely.
If those magic reserves are nowhere to be found though, it would still take us 36 years to mine all the copper we have — allowing us to replace a mere 20% of our energy production from fossil fuels… And then leaving us wondering what to do with all those unrecyclable parts, or how to replace worn out panels and turbines twenty years down the road — let alone figuring out how to live without the missing 80% used to be provided by fossilized sunlight. A large kick in the can… Into nowhere.
Obviously, we have a very serious math problem here. Amounts of copper in the ground notwithstanding, and to make matters worse, peak oil supply will also play a major role here, as we are still mining using diesel power. Due to a number of factors involved, peak oil’s exact timing is notoriously hard to predict, but one thing is for sure: we will not have this fuel at the scale currently available for much too long, let alone for decades and centuries down the road. (Not to mention the fact that if we had, we would have long overcooked ourselves by then, thanks to their carbon emissions.)
Either we leave fossil fuels, or they leave us, we would have a serious gap in between the proposed build out of our “renewable” future (taking 189 years to complete, if we found the necessary reserves) and the time we can use fossil fuels no more. (Which, in my guesstimate is a couple of decades of an uneven decline from here at best.)
Taken together: peak oil supply and our limited copper reserves make even a 20% fossil fuel replacement ratio super-optimistic.
Now, let’s move on to the actual — rather dirty — business of mining. Theoretical figures of reserves notwithstanding, the technical challenge of mining the necessary amount of copper brings up some very serious concerns in and of itself:
The separation of copper from its ore requires sulfuric acid. Copper ore from the pit first gets crushed than mixed with acidic water and frothed like a Jacuzzi, to leech out the red metal for refining later. The problem is, that apart from oil we do not have an abundant or a concentrated enough source of sulfur. Yes, many types of oil actually contain a lot of sulfur, which has to be removed anyway, and thus unintentionally serves us with another cheap input for mining. Thus, once fossil fuels are gone (or rather: start to decline), refining copper will become increasingly difficult.
Currently all copper mines use diesel powered machinery for the fuel’s high energy density (low weight to power ratio), low storage and transportation costs and short refill times. None of this can be told neither about batteries, nor hydrogen. In fact, if we would want to use electric machines to do all this hard work (if it were economically or technically feasible), we would cannibalize the very resource we were trying to get — further delaying the build-out of such a future.
Powering the mine with “renewables” poses another challenge, apart from using electricity to do the shoveling. Intermittency and the low real life performance of “renewables” (usually providing 10–15% of their nameplate capacity on yearly average) would make an increasing amount of mines an economic disaster. (You would have to buy a lot more panels, plus a battery storage to smooth out intermittencies or suffer severe technical difficulties.) This is the reason why the author of the cited study, Simon Michaux, who has a degree in physics, geology and mining engineering says: “We are not mining with solar panels and wind turbines… and when we do, shit’s gonna get real.”
We have mined to most dense copper resources first. The quality of ores (expressed by their actual copper content) has quickly degraded from 5–10% a few decades ago to below 1% today. The problem is, that the lower the grade (metal content) of an ore, the smaller the grains of copper entrapped within the rock is. Smaller grains usually mean a more homogeneous structure, resulting in harder rocks, requiring more energy to crush… Now, combine this with the fact that we would need to mill those rocks into ever smaller pieces freeing up those tiny copper nuggets, and you start to see how energy consumption runs rampant as mines deplete. This means, that we would need to add more and more panels and turbines, or burn more diesel for that matter, to get the same amount of copper every year.
Ever smaller particles does not only mean higher energy bills, but an increased demand on sulfuric acid and water to dissolve an ever smaller amount of copper and to get rid of an ever larger amount of dirt (resulting in a solution where the sediment is extremely difficult to separate from the liquid, reducing the chances of reusing that water to zero). Now, do we expect sulfur or water to become ever more abundant in the coming future? I guess you know the answer.
Copper doesn’t grow on trees. It can be found in geological formations taking millions of years to form. Also, copper bearing formations are not popping up at random: there is no point in drilling into various spots on Earth prospecting for it. The major formations have already been discovered, and thus the ever increasing investment in prospecting are simply do not produce a return. The already harvested mines can thus only be replaced with ever poorer quality ones — requiring ever more energy, water and sulfuric acid to get the copper from. In a few words: this 880 million tons in reserves is most likely what we all have, and we have to live with that.
New mines take at least 10 years to build, and only a relatively small amount of them turn out to be profitable to run. Most go out of business or don’t become a mine at all. Add in energy and resource decline, and you can see how copper mining is not something that will grow (or stay level) forever. Peak copper supply is very much a near term possibility.
All this have very serious logical implications; some inconvenient conclusions, only a very few people on Earth dare to contemplate. Let’s list those:
We neither have the copper reserves, nor the mining capacity to replace our current fossil fuel infrastructure.
Even if we had, we wouldn’t have enough cheap and abundant fuel (diesel), sulfuric acid and water to process it.
As a result, we would be able to get to a maximum 20% replacement of our fossil fuel infrastructure, presuming that peak oil and geopolitics do not throw a monkey-wrench into the process.
This implies that we will have to do with less (much-much less) energy as fossil fuels — and copper — leave us during the coming decades. We are talking about an 80% drop, and it really doesn’t matter at all if the remaining 20% comes from the last drops of fossil fuels or the last grams of copper available to build “renewables”. Both solutions are (were) a time limited offer on this planet.
What would this 20% then be enough for? Will the efficiency gains offered by electrification compensate the loss of 80% of our currently available power? If yes, for how long? And what will we do 20 years later, once the panels and turbines produced with today’s super-integrated, hard to recycle components drop dead at the end of their lifecycles? How much will we be able to actually recycle of those? 70%? 80%? How will we handle this additional drop of material availability of 20–30% every 20 years then? (Remember, we will have no economically productive mines left by then.)
Again, you can be as optimistic about the future as you want, but the window of material opportunities are closing fast. Not 5000 years from now, but starting today and slamming shut ever faster during the course of the coming decades as economically viable reserves of both fossil fuels and copper slowly deplete. This is a geological reality, not something you can turn around with fusion, solar, or whatever energy source you fancy. We have hit material limits to growth, and mining in space is not even on the horizon. (Needless to say, the lack of copper will also make all fancy high-tech digital AI driven smart “solution” to our predicament obsolete.)
If this is true, and so far I haven’t seen evidence that its not, then why haven’t our leadership class changed course? Do they have the courage, imagination and will to immediately abandon current plans of electrifying everything and start actively preparing the people for a world of much less material and energy abundance? Will they lead the way through this immense civilizational challenge, or will they keep doing what brought us here and apply magical thinking instead?
Until next time,