Iran’s mining industry continues to go from strength to strength and in particular, the copper mining sector remains buoyant, with exciting expansion development already well underway.
Iran is considered to be located on the world copper belt which runs from the southeast to northwest of Iran and Azarbaijan. The Porphyry copper deposit of Sarcheshmeh is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Iran’s total copper reserves are estimated to be 21.7 million tons, making Iran to stand in the 8th rank of the world ranking.
Iran’s copper mine production increased to 251 thousand tons in 2015. Smelting and refined production was 236 thousand and 185 thousand tons respectively. National Iranian Copper Industries Company (NICICO) is the main copper producer in Iran which is ranked fifteenth in world latest copper companies ranking. NICICO also is the nineteenth largest smelter company and the twenty-third largest cathode producing company in the world.
22 million tons of copper reserves
Around 500 ore deposits and indications of copper are recognized in Iran, while; only about 100 of them are surveyed and explored. Presently, there are 10 active copper mines in Iran whose reserves amount to 3 billion tons of ore, containing 21.7 million tons of copper metal comprising 3 percent of the world’s known copper reserves. The deposits can be geographically divided into 6 major provinces: Kerman (which holds the largest reserves of the country), Azarbaijan (predominantly situated in the Ahar Jolfa belt, in the Arasbaran area), southern Khorasan, northern Sistan (only reconnaissance surveys carried out), Minab-Fahnuj (only reconnaissance surveys carried out), Sabzevar-Semnan (all are of vein type with no porphyry deposits yet reported), Tarom.
Sarcheshmeh Copper Mine, located in Kerman Province, is the world’s second largest and the Middle East’s largest open pit copper mine. The mine possesses over 828 million tons of proven ore reserves at average copper grade of 0.68 percent (5.63 million tons copper content) and total 1.06 billion tons of estimated copper reserves at average grade of 0.62 percent (6.59 million tons of copper content), alongside substantial amounts of minerals such as molybdenum, gold and rare metals. Sarchemsheh mine alone accounts for 21 percent of Iran’s total copper reserves. The mine was first discovered in 1928, but it was not until nearly 40 years later that detailed exploration projects were undertaken. In 1967, Kerman Copper Industries Company was established in partnership with a British firm, which led to the discovery of 400 million tons of copper reserves. It lacked the means and the financial capability to operate the mine and was therefore purchased by the government. In the early 1970s, state-owned Sarcheshmeh Copper Mines Corporation took over the mine and approached the American Anaconda Copper Mining Company to utilize its expertise in copper mining. The copper complex was established and production kicked off up until the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which brought about the nationalization of SCMC and Anaconda’s assets and the establishment of NICICO, currently Iran’s largest copper producer.
Songun is the country’s second largest copper mine located in East Azarbaijan Province, which holds over 632 million tons of proven reserves at average grade of 0.61 percent (3.88 million tons copper content) and total 823 million tons of proven and potential reserves with an average grade of 0.6 percent (total metal content is estimated to be 4.9 million tons). Songun accounts for 16 percent of Iran’s total copper reserves.
Miduk is the country’s another developed large mine located in Kerman Province and operated by NICICO. The mine type is open pit and its initial ore reserves were 170 million tons with average grade of 0.83 percent copper. Based on latest exploration data, 151 million tons of ore with average grade of 0.58 percent (878 thousand tons copper content) will be mined in the next 29 years. There is a concentrator facility with capacity of 150 thousand tons copper concentrate and a 5 thousand ton SX-EW plant in the complex.
Darreh Zar deposit can be considered as the third largest undeveloped mine in Iran in terms of copper metal content. It is located in central Iranian volcanic belt; 8 km of southeast of Sarcheshmeh mine in Southwest of Iran. Proven ore reserves are about 465 million tons at average grade of 0.37 percent (1.7 million tons copper content) plus 71 million tons of probable reserves at average grade of 0.32 percent (227 thousand tons metal content) and total 536 million tons ore reserves at average grade of 0.34 percent (1.8 million tons metal content). Although the deposit contains huge amount of metal content but low ore grade is its weakness.
The Chah Firouzeh porphyry copper deposit located in 35 km north of Shahre Babak (Kerman Province) is the fourth largest mine in terms of metal content. Total estimated reserves of the mine are 378 million tons at average grade of 0.35 percent containing 1.3 million tons of copper metal content. Currently the mine is under developing. In October 2015, NICICO signed an investment agreement with the Middle East Mineral Industries and Mines Development Holding Co. (MIDHCO), Mahan Industries and Mines Development Corp., and Mofid Economic Group for construction of 100 thousand ton Chah Firouzeh copper concentrator plant in Kerman Province, southwestern Iran. The plant, which would be 65 percent owned by the three privately owned companies, was expected to begin operation by 2019.
Nochon deposit located in Kerman Province is the fifth largest deposit (555 million tons of ore at average grade of 0.27 percent, total metal content of 1.27 million tons) and Masjid Daghi located in East Azarbaijan is the sixth largest deposit (340 million tons of ore at average grade of 0.27 percent, total metal content of 0.98 million tons).
In terms of metal content Miduk stands at seventh rank of Iran’s copper deposits. Low grade of Dare Zar, Chah Firouzeh, Nochon and Masjid Daghi (varying between 0.23 to 0.37 percent) is the main obstacle of developing them.
Expansion projects, already underway
In last two years, by commissioning of phase two of Sarcheshmeh and phase two of Songun concentrator plants by NICICO, 310 thousand tons concentrate output capacity has been put into operation. The capacity of the Sarcheshmeh copper complex increased by 160 thousand tons of copper concentrate and 1.1 thousand tons of molybdenum concentrate, whereas that of the Songun copper complex doubled to 300 thousand tons of copper concentrate. NICICO has planned to increase its mine output from current 250 thousand tons to 300 thousand tons by end of 2016 and to 400 thousand tons by 2018.
The company was also in the process of building the 200 thousand ton Khatoonabad refinery in Kerman Province, and the 50 thousand tons of Songun SX-EW plant to produce copper cathodes from copper concentrate, which will increase the refined capacity to 440 thousand tons. By commissioning the flash smelting project in Sarchesmheh with 280 thousand tons plus expansion of Khatoonabad smelter from current 80 thousand tons to 120 thousand tons, total smelting capacity will be increased to 400 thousand tons of copper from concentrate.
In addition to mine, smelter and refinery projects, there are acid plants and fertilizer projects are being implemented by NICICO.
Some projects owned by other Iranian companies, especially in mining and hydrometallurgy are going on too. The biggest are MIDHCO’s projects which its concentrate leaching plant will be a first in terms of technology in the world. The plant’s capacity will be 50 thousand tons of copper cathodes.
Copper production hitting new records
Iran is the leading copper producer in the MENA region. In 2015, the country’s copper concentrate output increased by 19 percent to one million tons from 838 thousand tons of 2014. Copper anode output from concentrate did not change from 193 thousand tons of 2014 and copper cathode output stood at level of 197 thousand tons of 2014.
According to the latest statistics, Iran’s copper concentrate output in the first four months of Iranian calendar (March 20 to July 21, 2016) was 371 thousand tons indicating a growth of 22.84 percent against 302 thousand of the same period last year. Sarcheshmeh, Songun and Miduk complexes were the main producers of copper concentrates. Concentrate output stood at 94 thousand tons in the month to July 21, showing a rise of 11 percent compared to the figure for the same month last year which was 84 thousand tons. The smelter output in Sarcheshmeh and Miduk complexes stood at 78 thousand tons. Refined output was 60.5 thousand tons of copper cathodes during the four-month period.
By new projects coming on stream there will be a significant increase in Iran’s copper cathode production in the next few years. Capacity expansion in mining and refinery capacities, will lead to faster increase in domestic market cathode surplus. It is predicted that refined copper consumption will grow by 4.8 percent annually in the next decade. Cathode export is expected to reach 265 thousand tons by 2021 which is 9 times greater than what happened in 2015.
In 2015, UAE, China, Oman and Turkey were the main export destinations of Iran’s copper cathode. By removing the sanctions, it is expected that exports to UAE will drop and on the other hand, exports to China and other consuming markets will grow.
Middle East countries imported more than 530 thousand tons of copper cathodes and about 470 thousand tons of semi-fabricated copper products in 2015. Turkey was the largest importer with imports of 347 thousand tons of copper cathodes and 93 thousand tons of copper and copper alloy semis in 2015.
Copper semis, huge capacity but low utilization rates
Main copper semi products are copper rod, copper and copper alloy sections, copper and copper alloy flats and copper tubes. More than 120 copper and copper alloy semis fabrication plants have been established in Iran; their total capacity is more than 940 thousand tons. Copper rod with 590 thousand tons capacity has the biggest capacity. Copper rod manufacturers produced 107 thousand tons of rod in 2015 which indicates very low capacity utilization rate of 15 percent. Total capacity of copper and copper alloys section is 40 thousand tons. In 2015, 28 thousand tons of copper sections produced in Iran with capacity utilization rate of 28 percent. Copper tube industry has the worst output; by producing just 8 thousand of copper tubes in 2015, the utilization rate was 7 percent.
In the past 5 years, Iran’s copper semis production has decreased by an average rate of 6.6 percent per year. Economy slow down and the effects of sanctions reduced production and consumption of copper semis in the past few years.
By commissioning new copper semis fabrication plants in the last decade, imports of copper semis has decreased to less than 5 thousand tons in 2015. Copper semis exports and imports have decreased in the past decade steadily. Copper Semis exports, declined from 22 thousands of 2011 to less than 5 thousand tons in 2015. Significant and sudden growth of foreign currencies against Iranian Rial was the main reason for sharp increase of copper semis exports in 2011.
Copper and copper alloy flats, are the main imported semis to Iran; on the other side, copper rod and tube, are the main exported semis from Iran.
In the past five years, more than four times of imported semis quantities have been exported; this indicates that Iran’s domestic market is over supplied by copper semis.
About 85 percent of copper and copper alloy semis exports from Iran are exported to neighboring countries. Aggregate quantity of experts of past five years was about 54 thousand tons. But in the same period, only 45 percent of imported semis to Iran came from neighboring countries. Less than 13 thousand tons of these products imported to Iran in the mentioned period. Turkey and UAE are Iran’s main trading partners.
In February 2016, NICICO signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany’s Mansfelder Kupfer und Messing GmbH (MKM) on a USD 1.1 billion investment to the develop a downstream copper fabrication plant in Iran and delivery of 70 thousand tons of NICICO’s copper cathode to MKM.
Currently, there is about 780 thousand tons of in-active capacity of semi-fabricated products. By domestic demand growth a part of this capacity will be activated in the future. The Iranian government continues to support the downstream industry, cheaper cathode pricing mechanism is obvious in domestic market and copper consumers enjoy an advantage of 2 to 3 percent cheap grade A copper cathode.
In the next few years, lower inflation rates and better trade relations with the world, will lead to a significant increase in exports of copper products from Iran. It can be assessed as an opportunity for foreign companies to benefit from the profitability of copper business.
Exploration and exploitation of new copper mines, supporting industries of copper mining, smelting and refining businesses and exports of copper products will be the biggest investment opportunities in Iran’s copper industry.