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Discover the most impressive open-pit mine in the world, 1.200 meters deep and 7,7 km², on which the copper mining industry depends

Written by Noel Budeguer
Published 17/06/2024 às 15:51
Mining - mine - copper - gold
Discover the most impressive open-pit mine in the world, 1.200 meters deep and 7,7 km², on which the copper industry depends

Explore the world's largest open pit mine, more than 1.200 meters deep and 4 km wide, essential for mining copper and other precious metals

There are many mines around the world, but few compare to Bingham Canyon. Mining remains a crucial activity for countless sectors, and it is important to remember ancient minerals, metals and elements that continue to be vital to modern technology. An example is copper, the star of one of the most impressive mines on the planet, which is also a source of other metals. And it is that Bingham Canyon is a gigantic open pit mine.

Mining

120 years of copper mining

In the mid-19th century, brothers Sandford and Thomas Bingham discovered copper while tending cattle that grazed in the region. They informed their superiors, but metal exploration was not a priority at the time, as the main objective was to guarantee the survival and establishment of the local community.

A few years later, the organization of different miners in Utah began to see potential in the canyon, and after a few years of two companies exploring the mine on their own through tunnels, they merged to create the Kennecott Copper Corporation. In 1903, they decided to use open-pit mining techniques and, since then, they have been extracting resources intensively.

An immensity

It is interesting to note that the mine is very close to Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah. And this is curious because an open pit mine is a huge source of pollution. However, those responsible decided that it was worth using this technique due to the fact that deposits of useful minerals and rocks are relatively close to the surface. The result is gigantic craters, and the one in Bingham Canyon is one of the largest.

Since 1903, the mine has turned into a shaft more than 1.200 meters deep, four kilometers wide and a total of 7,7 square kilometers. It is one of the largest man-made excavations in the world, visible from a space shuttle and employs more than 2.400 workers.

Abundant reserves

We talk about copper, but in reality the mine produces copper, gold, silver, tellurium and molybdenum. According to Rio Tinto, the large mining conglomerate that absorbed Kennecott Copper, production in 2023 was more than 108.000 tons of refined copper. These impressive numbers are explained by the fact that the mine operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

2021 was a record year, with almost 160.000 tonnes of copper, 7.600 tonnes of molybdenum, 2,22 million ounces of silver and 139.500 ounces of gold. Historically, the mine has produced 19 million tons of copper, more than any other mine in history. As of December 2021, estimated reserves were 2,11 million tons of copper, 28,54 million ounces of silver, 2,09 million ounces of gold and there are expected to be another 20 million tons of resources underground minerals.

Powerful machinery

And this enormous production is achieved with equipment to match. They have several cranes with electric blades, the largest being capable of picking up around 98 tons at once (the weight of approximately 50 cars). This equipment costs more than 20 million dollars and weighs one and a half tons. In addition, there are 80 giant trucks capable of transporting 320 tons per trip and have drills that create holes in the ground that are filled with 540 kilos of explosives daily to continue expanding the mine.

This is one of the problems with open pit mining, as it generates a large amount of dust, but Rio Tinto claims that it has a device that allows it to capture fine particles with a system called a 'bag house', similar to a giant vacuum cleaner.

The mining process

With this machinery, 150.000 tons of copper ore and 330.000 tons of overburden material are extracted per day in Bingham Canyon. This material is transported on a conveyor belt of approximately eight kilometers until it is stored at the Copperton Concentrator. There, the rock is ground to obtain fine particles that are combined with air, water and certain reagents to separate the minerals.

Through a pipe, these minerals are transported to the smelter, where they are converted into liquid, and this liquid goes to the refinery. For 10 days, the copper plates are immersed in electrolytic cells with an acidic solution and a stainless steel plate. With the application of an electric current, copper ions migrate to the steel sheet and impurities (including gold and silver) fall to the bottom of a cell. Both will later be recovered at a precious metals processing plant. Thus, a copper plate with a purity of 99,99% is formed.

challenges and controversies

Currently, Kennecott claims to have one of the smallest carbon footprints among copper producers in the United States and is transitioning to renewable energy sources, which has saved one million tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. Like other companies, it is committed to being carbon neutral by 2050 with these practices and the purchase of electric vehicles. These trucks could be critical for mines in the short term.

However, the mine's story is not a fairy tale. The EPA considers that there is a contaminated groundwater column of approximately 190 square kilometers due to multiple spills from the mine, with very negative effects on the local population that continues to grow. They accused the company of releasing dangerous substances into nature, contaminating resources that support populations of birds or fish, and criticized the opacity in issuing reports on what would happen if a large earthquake collapsed the mine structure.

Tourist attraction

But beyond all that, Bingham Canyon is an attraction. It is possible to organize school visits, but also private ones, at a price of six dollars each (except for children under five, who enter for free). The company claims that all proceeds are donated to its own foundation, but although it's not the same thing, it's also possible to take the virtual route without leaving home.

Furthermore, after a huge investment of 1,5 billion dollars, Rio Tinto will be able to expand the southern zone of the mine, which will help achieve a production of one million tons of refined copper between 2026 and 2032.

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Noel Budeguer

Of Argentine nationality, I am a news writer and specialist in the field. I cover topics such as science, oil, gas, technology, the automotive industry, renewable energy and all trends in the job market.

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