South Australian company OZ Mineralshas designed a refining process that allows it to increase the quality of its copper concentrate and exponentially reduce export costs. The company’s hydromet technology improves the leaching process and further refines copper concentrate by reducing the iron content.

Project director at the company’s Carrapateena mine, Brett Triffett, said hydromet’s unique ability allowed it to significantly reduce the shipping weight, which would save the company tens of millions of dollars in export fees.

“We were planning on producing a product that was about 40% copper and that product would be shipped to our customers in Asia and Europe and they would make that into something that was 100% copper,” he said. “It’s a leaching process. We take that 40% product and use a combination of reagents to dissolve the iron out of the concentrate. It then upgrades it to the targeted 60%.”

The majority of mines around the world produce concentrate with 24% to 40% copper. Having a higher concentrate percentage not only increases its monetary value but also simplifies the smelting process.

“We have the potential to take this technology and apply it to our other operations in Australia and also other mines overseas as well,” Triffett said. “We hope it will give us a competitive advantage to develop projects that would not otherwise have been able to be developed at the moment because of the quality of their copper concentrate. This process is unique to us. We’ve done it to suit our concentrate and there is no one else in the world that’s doing anything like this.”

Triffett said OZ Minerals has global growth aspirations and was looking to expand its export markets to include big copper manufacturers in Japan and Korea. The company is currently engineering a plant and finalizing costs to demonstrate the feasibility of the process. Last month, OZ Minerals was awarded the Statewide Super Innovation in Resources Award for its hydromet technology at the inaugural South Australian Resources Industry Awards.

The judging panel included the leader of the minerals and energy strand at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute Bill Skinner who said hydromet would help transform the industry.

“There’s an added advantage to hydromet – when they target iron, other impurities come out along with it, uranium and others,” he said. “Having any elevated level of radioactive material in the concentrate is not very good. Hydromet produces a more valuable concentrate, reduces the carbon footprint and removes impurities for subsequent processing.

Australia has about 6% of the world’s economic copper resources and is ranked third after Chile (25%) and the U.S. (16%). South Australia has almost 70% of Australia’s copper resources and is home to a number of long-life deposits, including Olympic Dam, the fourth largest copper resource in the world.