How to Mine Copper

Curious how to mine copper? Mining itself is only a small part of the process of turning copper ore into usable copper, and the whole story gives valuable insight into this mineral.

How copper mining starts.
Copper mining starts just like many other mining processes-with blasting the ore from the mine. Copper mining may be done in open pits or underground mines, depending on the region and individual mining practices. The copper ore is then typically transported to crushers on-site at the copper mine, and from there different refining processes begin.

Copper refining utilizes some of the same refining processes as other mineral commodities, so some of these processes transfer across to gold or silver, albeit with different chemicals or reagents.

Copper leaching.
Many copper mining processes use leaching to separate the copper from other minerals and waste material. The two most popular leaching methods are heap leaching and dump leaching, both of which involve utilizing sulfuric acid to separate out the copper minerals from other minerals and waste materials. The leaching process creates a copper sulfate solution, which must be stripped of copper. Electrowinning plants utilize electrical currents to extract the copper from the copper sulfate solution.

Refining with secondary ores.
Some copper ore deposits contain secondary sulfides that resist the leaching process. These secondary sulfides are resistant to leaching because the process whereby these deposits are formed is similar to leaching itself, so refiners must use a different method to extract the copper.

The most popular method is froth flotation, which is an involved process. It starts by crushing the ore to separate the copper particles from the other minerals and secondary sulfides. Then refiners use a reagent that reacts chemically with the copper to make it hydrophobic, but ignores the other components. From there, the whole mess goes into an aeration tank, where the hydrophobic copper sulfate particles attach to air bubbles and then form a froth on the surface of the water. The froth is skimmed off, and that's the copper that has separated from the rest of the deposit.

Bacterial oxidation is another method that works to extract the copper from these sulfide deposits. Bacterial oxidation is another heap leach process, but instead of using sulfuric acid, this method uses a bacterial culture to separate the copper from the other components.

Additional copper refining processes.
Depending on how the copper is going to be used, different copper refining processes occur once the copper is separated from other minerals and secondary sulfides. The copper may be smelted, converted to blister or unrefined copper, reduced and electrorefined to process the copper to one of its various finished forms.

These processes take the small copper particles and form it into useable metal or other forms, depending on the intended use. Copper concentration makes a big difference on the value of the finished copper product, so companies utilize these different refining methods to turn out different levels of copper.

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