Prolonging the Life of the World’s Biggest Copper Mine – by Marianela Jarroud (Inter Press Service News Agency – April 10, 2013)

RANCAGUA, Chile, Apr 10 (IPS) – El Teniente, the world’s largest underground copper mine, has already been in operation since 1905, but the state-owned National Copper Corporation of Chile (CODELCO) wants to keep it running for another 50 years.

This, however, will require the acquisition of cutting-edge technology and an investment of 3.278 dollars – roughly equivalent to the total amount invested in the mine since it was first opened. El Teniente is located in the Andes mountain range, 150 kilometres south of Santiago. In 2010, it accounted for 25 percent of CODELCO’s total copper production.

The entire copper industry was nationalised in 1971 and is a major source of revenue for Chile, the world’s leading producer of the metal. The current production in Level 8 at El Teniente is 137,000 tons per day (TPD), which translates into 434,000 tons of fine copper a year.

But the copper is running out in this section, which only contains enough reserves to last until 2025. This is why CODELCO is undertaking the New Mine Level project, to reach the 2.02 billion tons of copper reserves located deeper down, at an altitude of 1,880 metres and 100 metres beneath El Teniente. The goal is for the new level to enter into operation in 2017.

The expansion plans form part of “a structural project within the Corporation, alongside the projects being undertaken in the Andina and Chuquicamata Underground divisions,” said CODELCO executive Millaray Farías, process manager at the crushing plant at the Pipa Norte mine, one of the eight reserves in operation within El Teniente. “It will allow us to prolong the life of the mine for many more years, since it is estimated that it will continue to operate until 2070,” she told Tierramérica*.

In the crushing plant, the copper ore extracted from the mine is broken down into smaller pieces.

As well as guaranteeing the maintenance of current volumes of production, the new mine will make it possible, in 2020, to begin the work necessary to raise production to 180,000 TPD.

Copper is valued at more than three dollars a pound on the London Metal Exchange. Last year, CODELCO generated 7.518 billion dollars in profits for the Chilean state, the third largest surplus in its history.

In order for the New Mine Level at El Teniente to enter into operation in 2017, it will be necessary to dig 98,450 metres of tunnels and 3,454 metres of vertical openings, such as ventilation shafts and ore passes, used to transport the copper out of the mine.

The new level will be accessed by two parallel 9.4-kilometre tunnels: one for the entry and exit of vehicles carrying workers, and the other for the conveyer belt used to transport the ore and the services area.

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