Return of the Jetti

The world needs copper and lots of it. There are only so many places for copper mines. Mining is a messy business and leaves a lot of waste material behind. Here’s the thing: that’s a framing problem. Instead of calling the stuff that’s left behind “waste” we should call it a “potential resource.” Enter the Jetti.

Jetti Resources is an American company (headquartered in Boulder, CO) that extracts copper ore from mine waste. Mines dig ore. The ore has to be high-grade, that is, containing an economically obtainable fraction of the desired material. Miners dig up the good stuff and leave the low-grade stuff behind.

That’s nuts. All that rock had to be moved at one point. It took huge amounts of time and energy to do that and the result is a big pile of rock that’s seemingly no good to anyone. Instead of digging new holes, it’s time to re-visit the holes we’ve already made and see if we can do a better job.

Economically feasible extraction from low-grade sulfide ores is sometimes called the Holy Grail of copper mining. Jetti claims to have a hydro-metallurgical process for doing just that. Sulfide ores are usually reduced via a pyro-metallurgical process otherwise known as roasting in a furnace. The chemical leaching that Jetti is using is less energy-intensive and can work with poor quality ore material that would not be suitable for the traditional methods. They claim they have doubled copper production at their test site in Pinto Valley in Arizona.

Capitalism is a great system for extracting wealth from the earth. But it comes at a cost. Those costs are called “externalities” by economists but you know them better as waste, environmental disruption, and pollution. We accept these “externalities” as the price of doing business. You want gasoline for your car? Well that’s fine, we can supply that, but we’ll sully your air and water in the process and ask you to accept that as a “trade-off.” This is where economics veers off into bullshit. We don’t have the right to “trade-off” our air and water and the rest of our ecosystem! We need a new way of thinking about how to get what we need and how to do it sustainably. We need to get rid of the notion of waste. I remember a nuclear engineer telling me once that burying nuclear materials (by-products of fission reactors) deep in the earth was a mistake. “What if we need to get to that stuff?” he would ask me. “That’s not nuclear waste, that’s a nuclear resource!” Regardless of how you feel about nuclear power you have to appreciate his attitude. It took a tremendous technological effort to isolate and create those fuels—why then do we throw them away?

The Jetti people aren’t going to save us. And I don’t know enough about markets and technology to guess about the company’s future. But they are on to something. Luxury car-maker BMW seems to think so, too. They just dumped a bunch of money in Jetti’s lap. BMW wants to electrify their fleet. They say that half their cars will be EVs by 2030. That’s going to take a lot of copper!

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