Chile’s Codelco unit seeks value in Copper impurities, Arsenic

  • Lower-quality ore means less copper, more arsenic
  • Ecometales seeks permit for process adapted to high arsenic
  • Seeking to commercially extract small metals

By Barbara Lewis

SANTIAGO, April 7 (Reuters) – Ecometales, a unit of Chile’s state-run Codelco, is in talks with smelters in Europe and China to share its technology for stabilising arsenic while processing lower-quality copper ore, an executive said on Friday.

Codelco was hit hard by the commodity price crash of 2015 and early 2016 and leading copper producer Chile as a whole must find creative solutions as its mature mining industry has used up much of the best ore.

Turning the remainder into pure copper is expensive and challenging from an environmental and health perspective.

Ecometales has a plant to process smelter residue dust in Calama, northern Chile, where ores have one of the highest concentrations worldwide of arsenic, a carcinogen.

To stabilise the impurity, which increases as the amount of copper in ore declines, Ecometales has been using a method of arsenic and antimony abatement since 2012.

It is now talking to smelters across the world as they seek to meet increasingly stringent regulatory standards.

“We are working with one European smelter and are piloting our technology,” Development and Business Manager Carlos Rebolledo Ibacache told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference on mining sustainability.

He said he could not name the smelter because of a non-disclosure agreement.

In addition, he said the company was in early discussions with smelters in China, Chile’s biggest customer.

In Chile, there is a growing pile of complex copper concentrate, which is partially treated ore that contains 0.5 percent or more arsenic, that most smelters cannot process for safety reasons.

Globally, the International Copper Study Group has estimated the extraction of arsenic associated with copper mining will rise to 162,000 tonnes by 2020 from 82,000 tonnes in 2013.

Ecometales is seeking an environment permit for a technology known as autoclave, already used in the nickel and gold industry, for copper.

It uses oxygen at high pressure and temperatures to treat concentrate, increasing the proportion of copper and removing arsenic while producing zero emissions.

Ecometales hopes it will get its permit around the middle of this year. It will then need to find financing of around $300 million.

Some extra cash could come from extracting minor metals dismissed as impurities in a nation that has focused on copper.

Ecometales is seeking commercially viable ways to extract germanium, used in night-vision technology, bismuth, a fire retardant, antimony, used in alloys, lead and a small amount of silver. (Reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)


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