The Blue Water Footprint of Primary Copper Production in Northern Chile

Research article by Pena and Huijbregts (published June 2013)

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Water consumption related to the life cycle of metals is seldom reported, even though mines are often situated in very dry regions. In this study we quantified the life cycle consumption of groundwater and fresh surface water (blue water footprint [WFblue]) for the extraction and production of high-grade copper refined from both a copper sulfide ore and a copper oxide ore in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Where possible, we used company-specific data.

The processes for extracting copper from the two types of ore are quite different from each other, and the WFblue of the sulfide ore refining process is 2.4 times higher than that of the oxide ore refining process (i.e., 96 cubic meters per metric ton [tonne] of copper versus 40 cubic meters per tonne of copper). Most of the water consumption (59% of WFblue) in the sulfide ore process occurred at the concentrator plant, via seepage, accumulation, and also by evaporation. In the oxide ore process, the main user of water is the heap-leaching process, with 45% of WFblue. The crushing and agglomeration operations, electrowinning cells, and solution pools are also significant contributors to the total consumption of water in the oxide ore process. Most of the water consumed in the oxide ore process was lost to evaporation.

The WFblue of the oxide ore process can be reduced by preventing water evaporation and using more sophisticated devices during irrigation of the leaching heaps. The WFblue of the sulfide ore refining process can be reduced by improving water recovery (i.e., reducing seepage, accumulation, and evaporation) from the tailings dam at the concentrator plant. Using seawater in the production of copper is also a promising option to reduce the WFblue by up to 62%.