Riding the Copper Rollercoaster

Mining companies must continually adapt to changing prices to survive and thrive. Emerson’s Michael Pearson describes the drop in copper prices and how one mining company incorporated wireless flow measurement to remove costs from their operations.

Copper has had a rough couple of months. In the past two months, it has dropped from $4.50 per pound to $3.14 per pound. This is coming off of copper price records of more than $5.00 per pound in February. Even with all of the price uncertainty, the supply of copper is expected to be at a deficit in 2011, and continue this trend at least into 2012. The 2011 Copper Survey put out by GFMS predicts the 2011 deficit to be in the range of 286,000 tons.

As Juan Carlos Bravo pointed out in his post last month, the price of copper is highly influenced by global industry and China’s demand in particular. Considering the added economic turmoil happening in Europe, it is no surprise that copper prices have taken a nosedive.

That said, the Relative Strength Index (RSI) of copper has reached its lowest level since 1996. What does this mean? Brenda Sullivan, an analyst at Sucden Financial Ltd., believes this is “a sign that the market has gone too far, too fast and prices are due for a corrective rebound.” In short, the belief is that prices are going to go back up, and soon.

So what does this mean for producers? While the price of copper is in flux, demand still exists, and the recent low RSI of copper indicates an upcoming rebound in copper prices. While it may not be the best time to invest heavily in new mining operations, the time has never been better to streamline existing operations. Minor investments in existing infrastructure as well as process optimization can significantly reduce bottom lines, while keeping capital risk at bay.

Barrick Gold Corporation chose to do exactly this when they retrofitted their copper leach pads with WirelessHART flow transmitters. By monitoring the flow of sulfuric acid throughout the pad, Barrick was able to increase copper production by 7%. Additionally, they reduced their sulfuric acid content by 14%, which translates to $140,000 in annual savings. By implementing a wireless solution, the cost of the project was minimal compared to the operational savings. WirelessHART technology based on the IEC 62591 standard, provided a robust wireless network with exceptional data integrity.

One thing seems certain: the copper rollercoaster ride is far from over. Companies around the world are looking for ways to increase their profitability as global factors continue to shake up the market. Regardless of the current price of copper, operational efficiency will be one of the keys to maintaining profits through these tumultuous times.

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