There is nothing new about copper. Ten-thousand-year-old pendants fashioned from this metal have been found in the present-day Middle East. Around 7,000 years ago people worked out how to smelt it, and then 2,000 years later used it to create bronze.
Over time copper was superseded, both in terms of its cultural value (think silver or gold) and, more recently, in its significance for industrial and economic growth. Aluminium, not even discovered until 1827, overtook copper as the most produced non-ferrous metal in the 1950s. The past 70 years have seen a dash for bauxite, the most common ore of aluminium, as mining companies expanded into less developed parts of the world in a bid to meet ever-increasing demand.
These same mining companies are now returning their focus to copper. In an interview in today’s Financial Times (£), the chairman of Rio Tinto confirmed that the Anglo-Australian group is re-evaluating its long-term strategy for copper development. With global consultancy research group Wood Mackenzie forecasting that copper demand is likely to outstrip supply as early as 2026, it is perhaps unsurprising that international mining giants such as Rio Tinto, BHP and Glencore are rethinking.
Why now? As the world moves towards electrification and cleaner energy, copper’s purpose becomes clear. In the UK alone, the aim is for us all to transition to electric vehicles by the 2040s. Copper is used in charging infrastructure, car batteries and electric motors, making it extremely important, especially given the consensus that we need to grow the charging network incredibly quickly. At present, a singular electric car requires over 40kg of copper, around double that of a traditional vehicle. All this is before we even begin to consider the debate around heat pumps for houses, which again would feature large quantities of copper.
It’s not just the mining companies who have noticed these trends either. Last week copper’s value hit a three-month high, driven by demand in China, with analysts predicting further significant growth in the next two years (£). A demand-supply conundrum will only lift prices higher.
In a world as rapidly evolving as ours, no metal will have the field entirely to itself. Nickel also has a bright future. It is present in rechargeable batteries and many electronic devices, which also means countries harbouring large deposits of it, such as Australia and Indonesia, may be able to take geopolitical advantage. For copper, emerging markets like Chile, Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo are already thinking about how their vast reserves can influence their global standing.
Despite its links to the ancient world, it may be that the true age of copper is only just beginning.
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