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Chemistry of Copper – Sunny Lee 10AH/Y3

Copper is extracted from its ore using many different processes.


Firstly, the ore is concentrated. There are different ways of
concentrating the ore. One way is comminution, which is when the
rock particles are minimized so that ore particles can be separated
from unwanted rock or gangue minerals (usually silicate
minerals/oxide minerals). After this, the ore minerals are removed
from the rock. There are two different ways of removing the ore
minerals. If the ore is an oxide ore, the minerals are removed using
a “hydrometallurgical liberation process”

The hydrometallurgical liberation process is used to treat poor oxide


ores that mostly contain copper carbonate minerals (e.g. malachite,
azurite), as well as phosphates and sulphates (soluble minerals).
One way of extracting the copper from an oxide ore is using the
heap leach process. This is when the ore is mashed into little pieces
and heaped on a waterproof plastic/clay lined leach pad, where it is
hosed down with a leach solution. Sulphuric acid is used to remove
copper from the ore – this removal process can take several weeks.
The copper solution works its way through the ore until it reaches
the leach pad at the bottom of the pad, from which the solution
drains into a “storage pond”. (So copper oxide+sulfuric
acid=sulphuric acid+copper sulphate). The copper is then removed
from the solution using a “solvent extraction and electro winning
plant” (SX-EW plant). The sulphuric acid is then reused in the
extraction process again.

Another way of extracting copper is by using the smelting process.


First, the “froth- flotation process” is used to concentrate the
crushed ore (in this case, chalcopyrite). The ore is placed in water
with some pine oil; then a blast of air is passed through the
particles. The copper particles then float at the top because they
have been picked up by the air bubbles and are resistant to water
due to the oil, and the waste material (gangue) falls to the bottom.
Next the copper ore is roasted at temperatures up to 700 (we
change some of the chalcopyrite to copper oxide, and some of the
sulphur to sulphur dioxide).

Copper is further purified using electrolysis – this is known as


electrolytic refining. Most of the high quality and pure copper used
by industries is produced by electrolysis. In electrolysis, the copper
is placed in slabs, which act as anodes (a piece of metal connected
to the positive end of the battery). Pure copper cathodes (pieces of
metal connected to the negative end of the battery) are placed in
between the two anodes, and everything is placed in an electrolyte
(solution that conducts electricity) containing sulphuric acid and
copper sulphate. A current of 200A is then passed into the
electrolyte. The copper atoms then detach themselves from the
impure ore and head towards the copper cathodes, where they are
left as pure copper atoms.

The roaster produces a calcine (mixture of oxides, sulphates and


sulphides). This calcine is then heated to 1200 degrees using silica
and limestone (known as fluxes) – also known as smelting. The
calcine then melts, and some of the impurities form a layer known
as slag on top of the liquid, which can be removed. The remaining
liquid containing impurities is known as matte. The matte is then
placed in a converter, where it oxidises with air to form blister
copper.

There are seven different copper ores – Bornite, Chalcocite,


Chalcopyrite, Cuprite, Malachite, Tennantite and Tetrahedite.
Bornite has a brown colour; although it can tarnish to different
shades of blue and purple (these different shades have earned the
ore the nickname “peacock copper”). It can be found all around the
world, especially in Butte, Montana and Bristol, Connecticut (both in
America), and crystals of the ore have been found in Austria,
Zimbabwe, Morocco, Kazakhstan and England. Chalcocite has mined
for many hundreds of years, and is one of the most profitable
copper ores in the world, due to its high copper content, which is
easy to extract. However, the ore is very rare, so it is not a main
source of copper. Chalcopyrite is the most important copper ore,
and it can be found in Ontario, Broken Hill and the Andes. Cuprite is
often found in Arizona, and Malachite can be found in Russia,
America, Mexico, Zambia, France and many other countries.
Tennanite was first found in England, and is found in hydrothermal
veins and contact metamorphic deposits (when rocks recystallize).
Tetrahedite was first discovered in Germany, and is discovered in
the same areas as Tennanite.

There is a huge amount of copper on our planet – there is still over 5


million years worth of copper left in the earth’s crust, at the current
rate of mining. However, only a small amount of the copper is
profitable to extract, due to the limitations of current technology. It
is difficult to give an exact estimate for the amount of copper left, as
new ways of extracting copper are constantly being developed,
there are many deposits that have not yet been discovered, and
there are always new copper ores being deposited on the seabed.
Rough estimates of the world running out of copper range from 25
years to 60 years.

The countries that control the world’s production of copper are the
ones that have the biggest reserves of copper. Chile is the biggest
producer of copper in the world, and it accounts for 35% of the
world’s copper production. 45% of all Chilean exports are copper,
and Chile’s economy has grown substantially in recent years, due to
large increases in the price of copper. Other large producers of
copper include the USA, Peru and Indonesia.

Low grade ores are ores that don’t contain many valuable minerals.
Richer ores that contain lots of impurities can also be called low
grade ores. Low grade ores tend to be less valuable than high grade
ores, as only a small percentage of the metal in the ore is extracted
successfully. Low grade ores are becoming more important, as
richer ores with high copper content are becoming increasingly
harder to find, so low grade ores are being increasingly used as a
source for copper.

There are many reasons why recycling copper is important. One of


them is protecting the environment – many waste products such as
dust and waste gases are produced when copper is mined, so
recycling is much cleaner. Also, any copper that isn’t recycled has to
be dumped in landfill dumps, which are now almost full and very
expensive to dump material on. It is also cheaper to recycle old
copper than to extract new copper, and recycling uses less energy
too.