Where Copper Meets Fire – by Christopher Pollon (TheTyee.ca – March 26, 2014)

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Click here for the entire series about copper: http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/03/24/Travels-with-Copper/

Naoshima Island in Japan is a surreal melting pot of BC metal and fine art. Third in a series.

From the deck of a private ferry racing across the Seto inland sea, Naoshima Island appears as a tower of yellow rock on the horizon, tipped in a lush emerald. As we approach, blue-uniformed figures appear, darting in tiny vehicles around an imposing industrial complex bearing the red insignia of Mitsubishi, one of the world’s most powerful corporate conglomerates.

If this were a James Bond movie, Naoshima would be the island lair of an arch-villain. Instead it’s home to one of Japan’s oldest operating copper smelters, in almost continuous use since 1917. It’s also the first destination for the raw copper produced at the Copper Mountain mine near Princeton, and much of the rest of the copper mined today in British Columbia.

I came expecting Mordor, only to find the world’s oddest fine art display, with a 230-metre smokestack rising from the northern tip. In a surreal twist that is uniquely Japanese, Naoshima is also a world famous art gallery “park,” covering most of the island’s 17 square-kilometres. It’s home to three major art galleries featuring works by Pollock, Warhol and Monet. Random sculptures dot the shoreline. The island’s narrow roads navigate a maze of buildings and villages in traditional Japanese style, transformed into stunning, often bizarre, fine art installations.

Nonetheless, this is also one of the world’s most important centres for smelting and refining the pure metal out of copper ore from mines around the globe. After China, Japan smelts more copper than anywhere else on the planet (about 10 per cent of the global total), and Naoshima is one of four Japanese copper smelters in the world’s top 20 list of producers of refined copper by volume.

Princeton to Naoshima

Raw copper concentrate — a fine black powder containing roughly 30 per cent pure metal — leaves Copper Mountain by truck to be driven 300 kilometres to tidewater at the Port of Vancouver’s Vancouver Wharves. There it’s loaded onto “Handymax” bulk carrier ships, alongside raw copper from two other B.C. mines — Huckleberry near Smithers B.C., and Teck’s Highland Valley southwest of Kamloops. (Mitsubishi Materials and two other Japanese companies own half of Huckleberry, and MMC has a continuing purchase contract with Highland Valley). Once a month the ships leave with 12,000 tonnes of Copper Mountain concentrate for the two-week sea voyage to Naoshima.

Commodities such as copper concentrates and coal are often shipped to the world on what’s called a “freight on board” basis — meaning the customer takes ownership of the product the moment it’s loaded on the ship.

From this point forward, where most B.C. resources go can become hard to trace. Call it primary producer resource myopia. Take for example, a recent shipment of B.C. coal from Vancouver that reached Finland through the seasonally ice-free Northwest Passage this past September. The company that mined the coal, Vancouver’s Teck, did not monitor or know the route the coal took once it was in the ship’s hold. Copper Mountain’s output proved easier to follow.

Into the melting pot

The raw concentrate is unloaded at a Naoshima dock, dried, mixed with ore from other mines, and moved by conveyor belt to the first of three furnaces to be “fire-refined.” The “Mitsubishi Process” of smelting gradually removes the impurities inherent to the ore — mostly sulphur and iron. At the end of the process, plates of 99.999 per cent pure copper emerge: the basic material of wire, pipe, and everything else the versatile red metal will become.

For the rest of this article, click here: http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/03/26/Copper-Meets-Fire/?utm_campaign=map

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