Sources of Copper Ore

Copper orebodies and extraction

The El Chino open-pit copper mine in New Mexico.

The El Chino open-pit copper mine in New Mexico.

Currently, the most common source of copper ore is the mineral chalcopyrite (CuFeS2), which accounts for about 50% of copper production.

For economic and environmental reasons, many of the byproducts of extraction are reclaimed. Sulfur dioxide gas, for example, is captured and turned into sulfuric acid — which is then used in the extraction process.


Dissolved copper from deep underground cools to form the primary orebody.

Dissolved copper from deep underground cools to form the primary orebody.

To a large extent, copper oxide and sulfides are naturally separated in nature. As such, once mined the processing of the ore generally does not need to separate the oxides and sulfides.

Primary orebody formation

Copper orebodies are formed when geothermal (superheated and under pressure) solutions bring copper dissolved from deep underground to cool near surface environments where the copper and associated metals precipitate (the solution containing copper reaches pressure and temperature conditions favourable to precipitation) as minerals in veins and disseminations within the rock. Copper is usually deposited as copper sulfide minerals or in some environments as native copper metal.

The most common copper minerals in the primary hydrothermal zone are:

  • Bornite Cu5FeS4
  • Chalcopyrite CuFeS2

Orebody oxidization

Air or water oxidizes some of the orebody.

Air or water oxidizes some of the orebody.

During millions of years the mineral deposit may be exposed to oxygen by air penetration, or by oxygen rich water flowing over it. This oxidation alters the mineralogy, replacing the copper and iron sulfides with carbonates and oxides as the sulfur is oxidized to soluble sulfate and carried away in acid solution.

The iron in the oxidized zone depends in part on the host rock chemistry, but mostly under intensive oxidation the iron is oxidized and stays as various hydrous iron oxides (goethite, limonite, etc.) as the gossan or iron cap. In cases where sulfates are left as alunite, jarosite and so on the iron may move a bit more in solution. Abundant carbonate would create a different environment.

The most common copper minerals in the oxidized zone are:

  • Atacamite Cu2Cl(OH)3
  • Azurite Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2
  • Cuprite Cu2O
  • Chrysocolla CuSiO3(H2O)2
  • Malachite Cu2CO3(OH)2
  • Native Copper Cu
  • Tenorite CuO

Secondary orebody enrichment

Water enriches copper below the oxidized zone creating secondary enrichment zone (violet).

Water enriches copper below the oxidized zone creating secondary enrichment zone (violet).

Beneath the oxidized zone, some dissolved copper is precipitated as secondary or supergene copper minerals. This enriches the sulfides, making a secondary enrichment, or transitional zone. The primary mineralization was caused by the superheated geothermal solutions. The secondary enrichment replaces iron in the minerals with more copper, further enriching the ore.

The most common copper minerals in the secondary enrichment zone are:

  • Chalcocite Cu2S
  • Covellite CuS


In prehistory, copper could be found as native copper on the surface of the ground. Prospecting for copper in this environment was relatively simple. Over time, increased demand has meant that mining has turned to more marginal forms of copper to continue supply. These marginal copper sources are also much more difficult to locate. When a copper body is discovered, drilling is undertaken to determine the size of, and proportion of copper in (the grade), the orebody zones. If the copper ore deposit is typical, it will be described in terms of the number of tonnes (and the grade) of ore in each of the oxide, secondary and primary zones. The tonnes and grade can be multipled together to determine the amount of copper in the deposit, and the processing costs for each zone can be used to determine mine profitability.

As of 2005 Chalcopyrite ore is extensively mined in Chile, the United States, Canada, Zambia, Kazakhstan, Mauritania and Poland. In the United States, the states of Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah lead in ore mining. Indeed, the world’s largest copper mine, the Chuquicamata, is located in Atacama, Chile.

Most copper currently is mined from large open pit mines in porphyry copper deposits that contain 0.4 to 1.0 percent copper. Examples include: Chuquicamata in Chile and El Chino mine in New Mexico.

Reclamation and regulation

The requirements for companies or individuals to reclaim copper mines varies from country to country around the world. Regulations also vary from state to state within the United States. For instance, the State of New Mexico requires all hardrock mines to be reclaimed to a self-sustaining ecosystem after mining has been completed. Financial assurance is held by the state until the reclamation has been completed.

Hydrometallurgical extraction

Oxide ores

Oxide ores are readily leached by sulfuric acid, usually using a heap leach or dump leach process in combination with solvent extraction and electrowinning technology (SX-EW). Commonly sulfuric acid is used as a leach for copper oxide, although it is possible to use water. There have been examples where froth flotation was used to concentrate malachite. In general froth flotation is not used to concentrate copper oxide ores, as the cost of leaching is cheap when compared to the cost of grinding and flotation. The implication of this is that copper oxides are more economic to process than copper sulfides.

Secondary ores

Secondary sulfides – those formed in secondary enrichment – are resistant (refractory) to sulfuric leaching. High grade secondary sulfides may be concentrated using froth flotation, and subsequently smelted to recover the copper, or else they can be leached using a bacterial oxidation process to oxidize the sulfides to sulfuric acid, which also allows for simultaneous leaching with sulfuric acid. As with oxide ores, solvent extraction and electrowinning technologies are used to recover the copper from the pregnant leach solution.

Pyrometallurgical extraction

The following is a process of copper extraction from chalcopyrite ore into pure metal. While oxide ores can be processed using Pyrometallurgical techniques, Hydrometallurgical methods are more cost effective.

The copper ore is crushed and ground before it is concentrated to between 20 and 40% copper in a flotation process. The next major step in production uses pyrometallurgical processes to convert the copper concentrate to 99% pure copper suitable for electrochemical refining. These high temperature processes first roast the concentrate, then smelt it in a furnace, oxidise and reduce the molten products to progressively remove sulfur, iron, silicon and oxygen to leave behind relatively pure copper.


All copper sulfide ores are concentrated using the froth flotation process. Ground ore is mixed with xanthate reagents (for example, pine oil), which reacts with the copper sulfide mineral to make it hydrophobic on its surface.

The sulfide ore is crushed and ground to increase the surface area of the ore for subsequent processing. The powdered ore is mixed with pine oil (the ‘collector chemical’) and introduced to a water bath (aeration tank) containing surfactant. Air is constantly forced through the slurry and the hydrophobic mix of copper and pine oil latches onto and rides the air bubbles to the surface, where it forms a froth and is skimmed off. These skimmings are cleaned of the collector chemical and surfactant , leaving copper concentrate. The remainder is discarded as tailings, or processed to extract other elements.

  • An example collector chemical is potassium amyl xanthate.
  • An example frother chemical is sodium oleate.

To improve the process efficiency, limestone is used to raise the pH of the water bath, causing the collector to ionize more and to preferentially bond to chalcopyrite (CuFeS2) and avoid the pyrite (FeS2) – iron exists in both primary zone minerals.

The product from this froth flotation process is known as copper concentrate. When the foam (which is between 20 and 40% copper) is dried it is known as copper concentrate. Copper concentrate may be treated by either hydrometallurgical methods or sintered before pyrometallurgical methods are used to produce copper metal. Copper concentrate is sometimes traded either via spot contracts or under long term contracts as an intermediate product in its own right.


In the roaster, the copper concentrate is partially oxidised to produce calcine and sulfur dioxide gas. The stoichiometry of the reaction which takes place is:

  • 2CuFeS2(s) + 3O2(g) → 2FeO(s) + 2CuS(s) + 2SO2(g)

As of 2005, roasting is no longer common in copper concentrate treatment. Direct smelting using the Flash Smelting or El Teniente furnace is now used.


The calcine is then mixed with silica and limestone and smelted at 1200°C (in an exothermic reaction) to form a liquid called matte. In copper recycling, this is the point where scrap copper is introduced.

Several reactions occur. For example iron oxides and sulfides are converted to slag which is floated off the matte. The reactions for this are:

  • FeO(s) + SiO2 (s) → FeO.SiO2 (l)

In a parallel reaction the iron sulfide is converted to slag:

  • 2FeS(l) + 3O2 + 2SiO2 (l) → 2FeO.SiO2(l) + 2SO2(g)

Conversion to blister

The matte, which is produced in the smelter, contains around 70% copper primarily as copper sulfide as well as iron sulfide. The sulfur is removed at high temperature as sulfur dioxide by blowing air through molten matte:

  • CuS(l) + O2(g) → Cu(l) + SO2(g)

In a parallel reaction the iron sulfide is converted to slag:

  • 2FeS(l) + 3O2 + 2SiO2 (l) → 2FeO.SiO2(l) + 2SO2(g)

The end product is (about) 98% pure copper known as blister because of the broken surface created by the escape of sulfur dioxide gas as the copper ingots are cast. By-products generated in the process are sulfur dioxide and slag.


The blistered copper is put into an anode furnace (a furnace that makes anodes) to get rid of most of the remaining oxygen. This is done by blowing natural gas through the molten copper oxide. When this flame burns green, indicating the copper oxidation spectrum, the oxygen has mostly been burned off. This creates copper at about 99% pure. The anodes produced from this are fed to the electrorefinery.


The copper is then put into sheets which are refined by electrolysis. The copper anodes are placed into a solution of copper sulfate and sulfuric acid. The copper then migrates across the solution to the cathode, also made of copper to maintain purity. The reactions are:

  • At the anode: Cu(s) → Cu2+(aq) + 2e-
  • At the cathode: Cu2+(aq) + 2e- → Cu(s)

Copper cathode is 99.97% copper in sheets of dimensions: 96 cm x 95 cm x 1 cm, with a mass of about 100 kg. It is a true commodity, deliverable to the metal exchanges in New York, London and Shanghai. The chemical specification for electrolytic grade copper is ASTM B 115-00.

Source: Wikipedia