Australia's new force in copper



From discovery to development, Australian mining company CuDeco has transformed itself into Australia’s new force in copper. The launch in late 2016 of its Rocklands Copper Mine near Cloncurry, Northwest Queensland is seen as the start of a new era for the emerging company as it taps into potentially electrifying growth in copper demand thanks to the electric vehicle revolution. 


A decade after its discovery, the Rocklands mine was officially opened in October 2016 in the presence of dignitaries from government and other key stakeholders as they celebrated the new investment and jobs created for the region.  


The past year has seen the Brisbane-based miner achieve a number of milestones at its flagship project, including the first production of sulphide copper concentrates and the first deliveries of native copper and sulphide concentrates to the Port of Townsville for export to China. The company also recommenced mining operations in March 2017 following the appointment of an external mining contractor. 


Following record production at Rocklands for the month of November 2017, newly appointed CEO Gongyang Jiang, at the company’s annual general meeting, announced plans to ensure the Rocklands processing plant achieves consistent nameplate production of 3 million tonnes per annum. 


“The installation of two new C400 cone crushers will help improve reliability and plant uptime, while a new gravity circuit bypass will also lower operating costs. These initiatives, coupled with enhanced copper grades from the pit, will boost operational performance at our mine,” Jiang says. 


“We are also examining the commissioning of the cobalt/pyrite circuit at Rocklands following the recent surge in cobalt prices, which have doubled over the past year.” 


Jiang notes that the company had achieved positive cash flows from operating activities of around AUS$10 million during fiscal 2017, a figure that will substantially improve as production hits target. 


Achieving those targets is a priority of the company’s newly installed leadership team, which aims to instil a culture of continuous improvement across the organisation. In addition to Jiang’s promotion from chief operating officer to chief executive officer, the company confirmed mining executive Peter Hutchison as chairman, while also naming a new general manager for Rocklands, Adam Norton. 


“The Board is confident in Jiang’s ability to drive ongoing improvement, while I am also pleased to move forward in the role of Chairman, a move which will provide further stability to the company’s operational and corporate governance frameworks,” Hutchison said. 


“Mr Norton also is an important addition to our team, and his wealth of experience including in the Cloncurry region will be vital in ensuring Rocklands delivers on its potential.” 


With a workforce of more than 330 at the end of June 2017, Rocklands is an important contributor to the regional economy, particularly due to CuDeco’s focus on local employment rather than ‘fly-in, fly-out’ workers. 


The company’s commitment to community engagement was shown in its support of Cloncurry’s 150th anniversary celebrations in September, with CuDeco acting as a gold sponsor of the ‘C150’ events. 


“CuDeco may be a relative newcomer to Cloncurry, but we are all building our own piece of history at our mine,” says the CEO. 


Looking ahead, Queensland’s newest copper producer sees a range of options in extending the life of its Rocklands mine to ensure its long-term sustainability. 


“We see the potential to leverage off our processing plant, which is a world-class facility, so the company can extend its production lifespan through exploration success, developing existing and new ore bodies and also looking at potentially acquiring other mining companies,” Jiang said.  


He said the processing plant had the ability to be configured for different metals and minerals, making it attractive to nearby mining operations as an outsourced processing plant.

In September 2017, CuDeco broadened its sales relationships by entering into a copper concentrate sales agreement with Japanese trading house Mitsui, adding to its existing offtake agreement with China Oceanwide. 


The mine’s proximity to growing Asian markets has placed it in an enviable position amid an improving outlook for the red metal. In 2017, copper prices hit six-year highs amid expectations of an emerging supply deficit, thanks to an improving global economy and demand from emerging sectors such as electrified transportation and energy storage. 


A report by the International Copper Association (ICA) pointed to a nine-fold rise in copper demand over the coming decade, aided by the growth of electric vehicles. The number of electric or hybrid cars and buses is expected to reach 27 million by 2027, up from just 3 million in 2017. 


Rising copper demand is also predicted from energy storage, since every kilowatt-hour of a lithium ion battery uses 1.1 to 1.2 kilograms of copper. Over time, this could result in an additional 600 kilotonnes of copper demand by 2027, according to the ICA. 


Cobalt is another winner since it is a key component in the production of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, along with mobile phones and laptops. 


“CuDeco has the right assets in the right part of the world, and we are targeting the right commodities,” Jiang proclaims. 


“As the ‘new force in copper,’ we have significant potential to grow our business further and we are focused on driving our business forward in 2018 and beyond.” 


One of a rare number of explorers that have successfully moved from discovery through to development, CuDeco is confident of an exciting future for its key asset as it capitalises on changing global technologies and the increasing demand from fast-growing Asia. For a town with a rich mining heritage, the future appears bright for one of Cloncurry’s newest miners.