Unearthingenormous scope copper

Unearthing the enormous scope of copper

11:04 AM, 21st November 2016
Navin Dalmia, Managing Director and CEO, D R Congo operations of Rubamin Limited.
Navin Dalmia, Managing Director and CEO, D R Congo operations of Rubamin Limited.

In an interview, Navin Dalmia, Managing Director and CEO, D R Congo operations of Rubamin Limited with Chemical Today magazine digs up the mine of opportunities that copper has to offer to the industry. From industry trends, challenges to potentials, he talks about how Congo became a significant investment destination for Rubamin.

By Shivani Mody

Dynamics of copper and opportunities in Congo.

The total global demand for copper is 20 million tonnes. Nearly 50 percent of this demand is produced in China. Congo is blessed with much mineral availability and none of the mining companies can ignore the potential of Congo. Over 10 percent of the copper raw material is available in Congo. Further, 35 percent of the global cobalt demand is also met from Congo. Rubamin produces copper blister/black copper in Congo.

Copper has a variety of chemical applications. Many of the applications of copper are in the form of metal as well as salts for the chemical industry. As far as the chemical application of copper is concerned it is used as a catalyst. People make copper acetates, which are used as a catalyst for organic reactions, which includes the rubber making and etching process. It also goes as a dyeing agent in textile industries, as a pigment in ceramic industry and is used in Kraft paper for the purpose of printing. The other form of copper used is a cuprous oxide, which is used as a fungicide, insecticides, colouring of glass among others.

Similarly, copper sulphate is used in agriculture as micro-nutrients. It is also used as a catalyst and in dyes, leather, printing industry, to name a few. As a pigment, it goes into the paint industry.

Sectors to witness growth in coming years

Emerging markets, as well as the Asia Pacific markets, are focused on growing construction, infrastructure and residential building sectors. This will propel tremendous growth and opportunity for the ceramic industry in the coming few years.

Even automobile sector is seeing increased rubber applications, which will help improve demand for the raw materials. Further, the growing population will automatically lead to the growth of textile and agro-industry. These are the main sectors that are fuelling requirements for the growing population, which will automatically push the demand further.

Customer demands related to copper products.

For all applications, customers globally seek consistent quality. The product, copper blister, does undergo refining before reaching the end users. Hence they look for the best possible purity. In some cases, customers also look for gold and silver, as they want to derive maximum value from the product. This is because of copper in some of the countries, consists of gold and silver during exploration. But in the regions where we work, it is available in traces and hence not recoverable most of the time.

Overview of Rubamin Congo operations.

We are a 31-year old company – one of the largest producers of zinc oxide based in Gujarat, India. And we also produce molybednum and cobalt salts. In 2004, Rubamin FZC was started as a company in the Middle East (UAE). Rubamin FZC then made an investment in Congo, where we started a company named Rubamin Sarl.

Our Congo operations are more focused on pyro metallurgy metal chemistry. In India, we have a refinery to make cobalt metals and salts. This led us into exploring the potential in Congo. The initial aim was to source cobalt bearing raw material for our Indian operations.

Growth of the Rubamin Congo operations.

Initially, we started our Congo operations by sourcing cobalt ores and concentrates. During the process, we discovered abundant availability and market potential for copper as well since cobalt is available as a co-product/by-product with copper

There is abundant copper on the ground level as well as many copper mines in the region. One discussion led to another and soon we were dealing with copper as well. To start off, in 2008 we opened our first plant in Congo to make black copper.

This is not pure copper and needs to be further refined. Due to easy availability of electricity in the region, we started manufacturing black copper using the pyro metallurgical process. The product we make is copper blister, which is around 90 to 92 percent copper.

This is then exported mainly to China and other countries, where it is made into 99.99 percent copper. The final,pure copper has wide application and is used globally. For example, it is used for household applications, manufacturing of cables, winding materials, refrigeration tubes, building materials, shipyards, car and train manufacturing.

Recycling for metal processes

The recycling process is carried out by ourIndian operations. Recycling is beneficial as the material comes back to the system and is not discarded. In cases where the material is discarded, we will be left with a huge stockpile in our storage areas. Similarly, we do recycling for cobalt as well. In terms of zinc, we take the zinc ashes and residues, which undergoes recycling and refining. We use the hydro metallurgical process in India for recycling.

The removal of all impurities using this process is a chemical route. We follow a process of roasting for removal of sulphur. After this treatment, we manufacture chemicals for the final material. These are not only unique and interesting processes but are also environment-friendly.

Incorporating a sustainable approach

As a company, we focus on having environment-friendly processes and products. For our operations we follow the dry process, hence there is no use of harmful substances and no adverse impact therein. We have built processes to reduce noise pollution, air pollution as we collect the fumes from our operations.

Focus on R&D and Innovation

We have a primary R&D centre in Congo supported by our India centre. For our production and processes, we maintain day-to-day monitoring of the quality as well as focus on future development. We have a team of chemists, who ensure that R&D and proper analysis is an on-going activity. The R&D experiments are in terms of process change or modifications. We first do the raw material processing and production in the lab scale setting. Once proven, it is implemented on a largescale- actual production at the plant level.

R&D is important for us even while considering future development. Soon we will acquire few mines. It is these R&D activities and lab scale process facilities, which will help us in mineral exploration and material studies - decide on the treatment procedures, ideas as to how to carry out the activity of floatation of the ore etc. In these aspects, we are a highly focused R&D company and it forms the backbone of the company. It is the deep-rooted R&D culture of our Indian operations that we carry forward in the Congo operations.

R&D is also important in terms of recycling operations. The same recycling process is not applicable for all materials and it differs from material-to-material as the material is available from different refineries, different industries and has varied applications. Unless our R&D is accurate, we cannot take it to the plant level and the uncertainty of results does not deem well for any organization.

Challenges faced by the copper industry.

Lately, the commodity market has taken a large hit because of the demand and supply gap. On the whole, in the last one year, the demand for all the metals, including copper, has reduced overall. This has affected the pricing of copper, which has gone down from $7,000 per tonne on the London Metal Exchange to $4,500 per tonne. This is a challenging situation for the processing plants – with the process cost remaining the same. In turn, it has had an impact on the mineral prices as well, but not to a large extend. This is a major challenge for the global copper community.

At the same time, producers are not decreasing the production. A decrease in production should be able to balance the situation, but this has not been the case. In such an environment, the community will not be able to pull up the copper price and this issue can be resolved only by an increase in demand.

On close examination, the current situation can be an opportunity in disguise. This gives a chance for copper producers to implement other measures such as cost cutting, improve operational efficiency, the benefits of which will kick in once the commodity selling environment comes back to its original prices. All in all, pricing is definitely the gigantic challenge at hand.

Further in the metal industry, there is a significant amount of uncertainty. Companies have to bear with extreme conditions - both the boom and the lull period. In spite of the risks, copper as a metal provides enormous scope and potential for growth. For the non-ferrous industry, it is a ‘darling’ product and has always remained in short supply in the past.

Future growth and expansion plans for Congo operations.

The Congo journey of Rubamin has seen many twists and turns. When we started in 2004, as a company we never dreamed of sustaining for a long time. It was more of a temporary phase for us and we thought of surviving as long as the mineral exploration was moving along. But then we took the first step and set up our plant in 2008.

Then there was the recession period in 2008-9, which was a setback for the company. Fortunately, we decided to pull on rather than exit the business. We are thankful for the decision as 2011 onwards there has been an upward trend and business is moving ahead. Our copper metal production has grown multi-fold from 1,000 tonne to 18,000 tonne per year. This is just one part of the growth story.

We plan to more than double our production capacity from 18,000 tonne to 40,000 to 50,000 tonne per year in the next three years. We are working very closely with the Government of Congo. As part of our joint venture with the government, we will get access to few mines.

This will allow us to set up new plants. Currently, we are doing the pyro metallurgy process. With the new plants, we intend to follow a process that is more of a chemical route.

© Chemical Today Magazine


See the Interview Coverage in Chemical Today magazine (Pg 20)


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