A trio of copper smelter-refinery project updates in China, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan

News Analysis




A trio of copper smelter-refinery project updates in China, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan

A collection of recent copper-related news on smelter-refinery projects.

Bloomberg reports that Russia’s Norilsk Nickel plans to replace one of its aging and polluting copper smelters at Nadezha in the Russian Arctic by building a new smelter in China from 2027 onwards. Sanctions are reported to have cut Norilsk’s revenues by at least 15% since 2022 due to international payment difficulties, delivery refusals, price discounts and rising costs to control environmentally damaging sulphur dioxide pollution at Nadezha. The company’s owner Vladimir Potanin, in an interview with Interfax, is reported to have said, the imposition of sanctions had made Norilsk “think about the right way to get our goods to the market” and decide to “move it to where it is consumed, and the final product will be sold as Chinese”. In total, Russia exported 616kt of refined copper in 2023, down 12% yoy from 703kt in the previous year. However, its export shipments to China surged by 253% yoy from 139kt in 2022 to 352kt last year, and now account for a 57% share of total exports by destination compared to just 20% in 2022. Its deliveries to Turkey grew from 84kt to 110kt (from a 12% to an 18% share), while its exports to the Netherlands plummeted ten-fold from 247kt to only 25kt (from a 35% to 4% share). Russian exports to Germany have ceased completely, from 130kt in 2022. Furthermore, in Q1 2024 China imported 65kt of Russian cathodes, up 49% yoy from 43kt in the same period of 2023.

Earlier this week, Aurubis, the European market leader in copper cathodes, wire rod and scrap and e-scrap recycling, reported that it would be expanding the copper refinery of its smelter-refinery in Pirdop, central Bulgaria from 230ktpy to 340ktpy. The company also said it would be building two new photovoltaic parks, Aurubis-2 and Aurubis-3, with a further park, Aurubis-4, following in 2025. These projects are part of Aurubis’s largest investment in Bulgaria to date. The four-year plan also includes the replacement of energy-intensive units with energy-efficient ones, the modernisation of the main production in 2025, and the water and slag treatment processes. Aurubis is executing multiple investments across its operational sites over the next five years. The centrepiece is the construction of a two-phase greenfield secondary copper smelter project, with a combined input capacity of 160ktpy of copper scrap and e-scrap, in Richmond, Georgia, USA. Phase 1 is due to open at the end of 2024 and will initially export anodes to Aurubis’ smelters across Europe. Under consideration is a plan to eventually add a refinery tank house and wire rod capacity at the Richmond site, once both phases of the secondary smelter are operational, to create a fully integrated plant.

Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, the Almalyk Mining and Metallurgical Plant (Almalyk MMC) has announced a project to build a 300ktpy copper smelter-refinery which is planned to come on stream in 2026. The company is currently in the middle of building its third copper concentrator plant, which when complete will boost its annual production of concentrates to one million tonnes. This expansion will be greater than the capability of Almalyk MMC’s existing smelter, so a new integrated metallurgical complex would have to be built. The new smelter will have the latest Metso technologies for smelting and converting copper with minimal emissions of harmful gases. The expanded processing of copper raw materials into cathodes will also eventually enable the company to further expand its downstream capacity for semi-manufactures (wire rods, drawn wire, tubes, sheet & strip) with higher added value. Almalyk MMC is the main copper producer in Uzbekistan, but it also supplies lesser volumes of cadmium, gold, molybdenum, silver, tungsten zinc and enamelled wire to domestic and international markets.