The Copper Cycle

Copper Production from Ore to Finished Product

From its original home buried underground in a mine to its use in a finished product such as wire or pipe, copper passes through a number of stages. When it is recycled it can pass through some over and over again. Below is quick description of the path.

1. Mining, Crushing

The beginning for all copper is to mine sulfide and oxide ores through digging or blasting and then crushing it to walnut-sized pieces.

2. Grinding

Crushed ore is ball or rod-milled in large, rotating, cylindrical machines until it becomes a powder usually containing less than 1 percent copper. Sulfide ores are moved to a concentrating stage, while oxide ores are routed to leaching tanks.

3. Concentrating

Minerals are concentrated into a slurry that is about 15% copper. Waste slag is removed. Water is recycled. Tailings (left-over earth) containing copper oxide are routed to leaching tanks or are returned to the surrounding terrain. Once copper has been concentrated it can be turned into pure copper cathode in two different ways: Leaching & electrowinning or smelting and electrolytic refining.

4a. Leaching

Oxide ore and tailings are leached by a weak acid solution, producing a weak copper sulfate solution.

5a. Electrowinning (SX/EW)

The copper-laden solution is treated and transferred to an electrolytic process tank. When electrically charged, pure copper ions migrate directly from the solution to starter cathodes made from pure copper foil. Precious metals can be extracted from the solution.


4b. Smelting

Several stages of melting and purifying the copper content result, successively, in matte, blister and, finally, 99% pure copper. Recycled copper begins its journey to finding another use by being resmelted.

5b. Electrolytic Refining

Anodes cast from the nearly pure copper are immersed in an acid bath. Pure copper ions migrate electrolytically from the anodes to "starter sheets" made from pure copper foil where they deposit and build up into a 300-pound cathode. Gold, silver and platinum may be recovered from the used bath.

6. Pure Copper Cathodes

Cathodes of 99.9% purity may be shipped as melting stock to mills or foundries. Cathodes may also be cast into wire rod, billets, cakes or ingots, generally, as pure copper or alloyed with other metals.

7. Cathode is converted into:

- Wire Rod - Coiled rod about 1/2" in diameter is drawn down by wire mills to make pure copper wire of all gages.

- Billet - 30' logs, about 8" diameter, of pure copper are sawed into these shorter lengths which are extruded and then drawn as tube, rod and bar stock of many varied sizes and shapes. Rod stock may be used for forging.

- Cake - Slabs of pure copper, generally about 8" thick and up to 28' long, may be hot- and cold-rolled to produce plate, sheet, strip and foil.

- Ingot - Bricks of pure copper may be used by mills for alloying with other metals or used by foundries for casting.

Source - Copper Development Association Inc.