The United Nations estimates that humankind is spewing 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. If we continue this upward trend, the consequences will be disastrous. “A hot year could lead to a cold winter, a cool year could lead to an unusually hot summer,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “Already more than half of countries have experienced a decade with higher-than-average temperature.” There’s good news: China has started efforts to control its pollution. A Chinese mining company named Sinosteel is making major progress. Indeed, this company has something special. It’s made the process of extracting copper from ore completely automated. The following video — a 15-minute documentary about the company — is made entirely from footage taken at its facilities in southwestern China.
Sinosteel is the proud owner of the world’s lowest-cost process for extracting copper from ore. A machine called the “automated heap leach system” — ALMS for short — captures the waste material from the rock. The waste is stored at a level far below surface levels. A month later, the water poured into the backhaul system — the parts of the mill that produce the metal. The “silent rumbling” should provide sounds of normal operation.
Instead, the backhaul system is like an underground river carrying waste more than 800 feet below ground. At this level, the mill is run at a rate of five tonnes of ore per minute — the equivalent of 20.7 tons per hour, or 1,200.7 tons per day. By the end of 2015, the plant’s output is expected to reach 4,854 tonnes per hour.
Along with its other facilities in various parts of China, these machines produce the world’s cheapest form of copper and, therefore, world’s cheapest source of electricity. At a cost of around $8.45 for every ton, this is cheaper than natural gas, coal and uranium. Coking coal costs $125 per ton.
At its BaoAnqi site, Sinosteel produces its ore for less than a penny a pound. By comparison, JPMorgan Chase will pay between 22 cents and 29 cents a pound to mine for copper. This process reduces China’s carbon emissions by almost 10 per cent compared to the use of coal for power.
Sinosteel’s relentless pursuit of efficiency led to an innovation in its intake system. The previous method for extracting a metal the size of copper required years of labor and drilling for rock in deep subsurface formation — not to mention the expensive energy used to pump out the ore. But the new model means that the only way to drill out the ore is by using boring machines. These machines blast millions of bolts into the rock.
Despite cutting costs, the model can only be taken one step further. With costs on the same scale as those of fuel and electricity, the company must consider closing down operations at BaoAnqi and switching the processing of its ore to less-costly mines in Africa and south America.
But winning the race to the bottom could have enormous environmental and climate consequences. Much of China’s climate policies — like the “cap and trade” system being pushed by the international community — are designed to remove the coal-fired generation from the country’s energy mix. A company like Sinosteel will receive large tax breaks and subsidies for making this switch.
The company is targeting energy efficiency and environmental friendliness. To this end, it’s spent $300 million on cutting waste. It’s been constructing several giant boilers — which boil waste as they burn — and installing GPS systems and wind turbines.
But this gigantic, expensive project will take years to complete. And, as the company already owns the lowest-cost type of copper processing, it has no incentive to adopt clean technology. “We are still integrating an integrated baghouse on a pilot scale,” the company said in a recent statement. “Further technological development is therefore required to achieve more cost-effective baghouse operation.” So, for now, there’s little reason to expect a switch to more efficient production methods.
At the end of the documentary, a workforce of workers — dressed in orange and white overalls — stands around a pumping machine, diligently injecting water into a hole. It’s a complicated machine, and the people working on it clearly feel they’re not actually doing anything.
At some point, these machines — and those in BaoAnqi — will run out of fuel and start to die. Then — almost certainly — humanity will face one of the worst environmental disasters in its