123Fab #64

1 topic, 2 key figures, 3 startups to draw inspiration from

Copper plays a major role in the global economy. From thermal and electrical conductivity to corrosion resistance, copper is an extremely versatile metal that has long contributed to the way the world works. By way of illustration, it is used in numerous industries such as telecommunications (cables, wires), electronics (printed circuits, chips), transportation (injection systems, braking circuits), construction (pipes, tubing), currency, etc. In fact, one tonne of copper brings functionality to 40 cars, powers 100,000 mobile phones, runs 400 computers and distributes electricity to 30 homes.

This year, the price of copper broke the $10,000 per ton mark for the first time in 10 years. This indicates an expected increase in global demand, which should benefit Chile, Peru and China (47% of global production). Described as the ‘new oil’, demand for copper has been driven in recent years by its vital role in a number of rapidly growing industries, such as electric vehicle batteries and semiconductor wiring. According to Citigroup Global Markets, demand related to renewable power generation, battery storage, electric vehicles, charging stations and related grid infrastructure accounts for about 20% of copper consumption. Thus, copper is lauded as an essential, structural metal for the energy transition. However, the recent price surge threatens to make decarbonization more costly. At the same time, the global average copper ore grade is expected to decrease, as mines with higher ore grades become exhausted. As a result, there is growing concern about the availability of copper, and several studies have sought to estimate the peak of global copper production using Hubbert’s model, which has been estimated to be between 8 and 40 years from now.

Given the importance of copper, innovation is beginning to spur in the industry. Continuous research and testing of new concepts are being deployed to make processes more efficientminimize environmental impactlower energy consumption and improve design. In 2015, Aurus III, a $65 million venture fund focused solely on copper mining innovation, was launched in Chile. Among the startups they have invested in are Ceibo (formerly known as Aguamarina), which focuses on soil stabilization through biomineralization, and Scarab Recovery Technologies, which is centered on recovering valuable materials from tailings. Recycling is also receiving increased interest because copper – like gold, silver and other non-ferrous metals – suffers no loss in quality from the process, making it infinitely repeatable. In addition, it requires up to 85% less energy than primary production. Hamburg-based Aurubis is one of the companies leading the charge on the recycling of copper and other metals by a pyrometallurgy method. This year it announced that it is investing €27 million in a new recycling plant at its Beerse country site. The ASPA plant will process anode sludge, a valuable intermediate product from the electrolytic refining of copper, from the recycling sites in Beerse and Lünen, Germany. New Zealand startup Mint Innovation, however, uses a unique biohydrometallurgy methodLaunched in 2016, it has developed a low-cost biotech process to recover precious metals from e-waste. It raised NZ$20 million last year to build its first two biorefineries in Sydney, Australia and northwest England.

It should be noted, however, that the copper recycling business requires considerable financial resources, particularly in terms of working capital and cash flow. This is what led to the near bankruptcy and takeover of the French factory M.Lego, which employs 110 people. Likewise, while secondary production of refined copper has increased in volume and percentage, it is growing at a much slower rate than the waste stockpile. This is primarily due to the fact that the sectors with the highest recycling rates (construction and infrastructure) have their copper tied up for several decades due to the life of the structures built. In contrast, consumer goods, which have a shorter life span, are only recycled at rates between 25 and 40%

In short, copper is projected to be a critical metal in the coming years, with a vital role to play in the energy transition. The gradual depletion of its reserves and dependence on certain countries is driving companies to innovate in the field of recycling, in order to make it both more profitable and sustainable. However, the copper industry will need strong government support to stimulate innovation to avoid a gradual shortage that would contribute to a sharp increase in prices.

2 Key Figures

About 50% of the copper used in Europe comes from recycling

International Copper Study Group (ICSG)

Copper consumption is predicted to rise more than 40% by 2035 compared to 2018 

European Copper Institute (2018)

3 startups to draw inspiration from

This week, we identified three startups that we can draw inspiration from: Mint Innovation, Sortera Alloys and Weeecycling.

Mint Innovation

The New-Zealand startup has scaled biological processes that recover valuable metals like copper from electronic waste and other residues. The company’s firm uses microbes to selectively and rapidly recover precious metals from various low concentration materials under environmentally benign conditions.

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Sortera Alloys

The American startup has developed a sorting system designed to reuse metals recovered from end-of-life products. The company’s system sorts metal by its type and alloy composition through a combination of X-ray fluorescence and optical sensor fusion, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning image processing.

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The French startup WeeeCycling has set up a circular economy loop for recycling strategic metals. The company buys electrical and electronic scrap in the world and, via its Morphosis brand, manufactured products. The rare metals are then extracted through a thermal and electrochemical stage to be resold for reuse.

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