Fuelling our Lust for Copper – Mining in Afghanistan…

Mineral Reserves Discovery Afghanistan - a close-up photograph showing a miner's hand holding a sample of copper ore.Versatile Copper: Connecting Us for Generations

Copper occurs naturally in rocks, as native copper, and the history of its use by the oldest civilisations dates back to at least 10,000 years.  These days, copper is in ever increasing demand for its extraordinarily versatile conductive and ductile properties, highly sought-after by the power generation, electronics and communications industries.  Remote barren war-torn Afghanistan harbours great stores of the mineral… 

Copper is a ductile metal with a very high thermal, as well as electrical, conductivity.  Pure copper is soft and malleable.  Its freshly exposed surface has a reddish-orange coloured metallic lustre.  It is used as a conductor of heat and electricity, as a building material, and it is a constituent of various metal alloys.

Copper is so versatile the chances are you are probably carrying a small amount of it in your pockets… as loose change!

A photograph showing one British penny copper coin.Despite competition from other materials, copper remains the preferred electrical conductor in nearly all categories of electrical wiring.  Copper wire is broadly used in power generation, power transmission, power distribution, telecommunications, electronics circuitry, and countless other types of electrical equipment.

Electrical wiring is the most important market for the copper industry.  This includes building wire, communications cable, power distribution cable, appliance wire, automotive wire and cable, and magnet wire.  Roughly half of all copper mined is used to manufacture electrical wire and cable conductors.

 

Physical Properties and the Electronics Bubble

Many electrical devices rely on copper wiring due to the multitude of its inherent beneficial properties:

  • high electrical conductivity,
  • tensile strength,
  • ductility,
  • creep (deformation) resistance,
  • corrosion resistance,
  • low thermal expansion,
  • high thermal conductivity,
  • solderability,
  • ease of installation.

 

Quite literally, it IS your “friendly neighbourhood” metal!

 

A photograph showing a worker at BASF handling advanced copper integrated circuits plating. Source: Chemistry IBMIntegrated circuits and printed circuit boards increasingly feature copper in place of aluminium because of its superior electrical conductivity.  Heat sinks and heat exchangers use copper as a result of its superior heat dissipation capacity to aluminium.

Electromagnets, vacuum tubes, cathode ray tubes, and magnetrons in microwave ovens use copper, as do wave guides for microwave radiation.

Along with the steady growth of global communications, the amount of copper in use is increasing and the quantity available is barely sufficient to allow all countries to reach developed world levels of usage.

 

Native Copper

Most copper is mined or extracted as copper sulphides from large open pit mines in porphyry copper deposits that contain 0.4 to 1.0% copper.  Examples of these mining exploitations sites include Chuquicamata (Chile), Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and El Chino Mine in New Mexico (both in the United States).

According to the British Geological Survey, in 2005, Chile was the top mine producer of copper with at least one-third world share followed by the United States, Indonesia and Peru.

Copper can also be recovered through the in-situ leach (ISL) mining process.

 

Copper Mining in Afghanistan

A map showing copper and iron deposits near Kabul, Afghanistan.The Afghan economy, including its industrial sector, continued to be dominated by agriculture in 2006. 

Until that time, the mineral resources of Afghanistan were relatively under-explored from a global perspective.

The country has extensive deposits of barite, chromite, coal, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, petroleum, salt, sulphur, talc and zinc, as well as precious and semi-precious stones, including high-quality emerald, lapis lazuli, and ruby.

In the past, copper was mined from the provinces of Herat and Farah in the West of Afghanistan, the Kapisa Province in the East, and the Kandahar Province and Zabul Province in the South.  Ongoing instability in certain areas of the country, the country’s remote and rugged terrain, and an inadequate infrastructure and transportation network have made mining these deposits extremely difficult.  Afghanistan’s mining industry was still using primitive methods and outdated equipment.  The country had approximately 200 mines, some of which were still under the control of the local warlords.

As of 2006, interest was focused on the AynakDarband and Jawkhar prospects in southeastern Afghanistan.

Copper mineralization at Aynak in the Logar Province was stratabound and characterized by bornite and chalcopyrite disseminated in dolomite marble and quartz-biotite-dolomite schists of the Loy Khwar Formation.  Although a resource of 240 million metric tonnes at a grade of 2.3% copper had been reported, a number of small ore lenses were potentially not practically and economically viable. 

Open pit and underground mining would be needed to exploit the main ore body, and other infrastructure problems, such as inadequate power and water supplies, were also likely.  The 2005 Mining Law might favour development of the deposit by using public tenders.  The Government issued a public tender for the deposit in 2006, and expected the granting of concessions in February 2007.  At the time, nine mining companies from Australia, China, India, and the United States were interested in the prospect.

 

Mes Aynak Copper Mine Prospect in Logar Province

China Metallurgical Group won the bidding for a copper mining project in Aybak, Samangan, in Afghanistan.  The bidding process was criticized by rival Canadian and U.S. companies alleging corruption and questioning the Chinese company’s commitment to the Afghan people.

In 2007, a 30-year lease was granted for the development of a copper mine at Mes Aynak in the Logar Province to the China Metallurgical Group for $3 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in Afghanistan’s history. It is believed to contain the second largest reserves of copper ore in the world and the deposits are estimated to be worth up to $88 billion.

A photograph showing the headless body of a 2,600 year old statue at the Buddhist site of Mes Aynak, near one of Afghanistan mines.Sadly, it is also the site of one of Afghanistan’s most important archaeological sites and, although there are desperate efforts being made to save as much as possible, the main Buddhist monastery and other remains are due to be bulldozed to make way for the mine.

Several new mineral-rich sites with estimated deposits worth about $250 billion, have been found in six other provinces.

Launched in 2006, a US Geological Survey (USGS), was jointly conducted with the Ministry of Mines.  The survey covers 30 percent of the country.  “The survey provides credible information on mines in 28 different parts of Afghanistan,” Wahidullah Shahrani told reporters.

 

Current Valuation

The survey showed the world’s largest copper deposits existed in Balkhab district of Sar-e-Pol.  The copper mine was discovered near a river, an area which might hold gold reserves as well.  The government launched tenders in late 2011 for the Balkhab copper deposit, which had reserves of about 45 Mt of copper.  Citing the report, the an Afghan government minister said two new copper mines in Logar Province and Herat Province provinces had been discovered.

The value of the Logar pit, not the Ainak mine, is estimated to be $43 billion.

Copper and gold mining prospects, worth 30 billion dollars, were discovered in the Zarkasho area of Ghazni.  Lithium pits worth $20 billion also exist in the Farah and Nimroz provinces.

A deposit of beryllium, which is lighter than aluminium and stronger than steel used in airplanes, helicopters, ships, missiles, and space craft, has been found in the Khanashin district of southern Helmand province.  The reserves are estimated at $88 billion.

 

Mineral Wealth for a More Prosperous and Stable Nation

Afghanistan sits on phenomenal mineral reserves.  Copper, as described above, but also fossil fuels and rare earth elements.

Coal

Afghanistan has rich reserves of coking coal.  Coal is primarily located within a Jurassic belt from the northern provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan through the center of the country and towards the west in Herat, according to Afghan mines ministry.

Petroleum and Natural Gas

Afghanistan has 3.8 billion barrels of oil between Balkh and Jawzjan Province in the north of the country.  This is an enormous amount for a nation that only consumes 5,000 barrels a day.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Industry jointly assessed the oil and natural gas resources in northern Afghanistan.  The estimated mean volumes of undiscovered petroleum were 1,596 million barrels (Mbbl) of crude oil, 444 billion cubic metres of natural gas, and 562 Mbbl of natural gas liquids.  Most of the undiscovered crude occurs in the Afghan-Tajik Basin and most of the undiscovered gas is located in the Amu Darya Basin.  These two basins within Afghanistan encompass areas of approximately 515,000 square kilometres.

In December 2011, Afghanistan signed an oil exploration contract with China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) for the development of three oil fields along the Amu Darya river.  Afghanistan will have its first oil refineries within the next three years, after which it will receive 70 percent of the profits from the sale of the oil and natural gas.  The CNPC began Afghan oil production in October 2012, with extracting 1.5 million barrels of oil annually.

GemstonesEmerald Mining in the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan - a photograph of a local showing off a rough emerald to the camera.

Afghanistan is known to have exploited its precious and semi-precious gemstone deposits.  These deposits include aquamarine, emerald, fluorite, garnet, kunzite, ruby, sapphire, semi-precious lapis lazuli, topaz, tourmaline, and varieties of quartz.

The four main gemstone-producing areas are those of Badakhshan, Jegdalek, Nuristan, and the Panjshir Valley.  Artisanal mining of gemstones in the country used primitive methods.  Some gemstones were exported illicitly, mostly to India (which was the World’s leading import market for coloured gemstones and an outlet for higher quality gems) and to the domestic neighbouring Pakistan market.

Gold

As of 2006, gold was mined from the Samti placer deposit in Takhar Province in the north by groups of artisanal miners.  Badakhshan Province also had occurrences of placer gold deposits. The deposits were found on the western flanks of the mountains in alluvium or alluvial fan in several river valleys, particularly in the Anjir, the Hasar, the Nooraba, and the Panj Valleys.

The Samti deposit is located in the Panj River Valley and was estimated to contain between 20 and 25 metric tons of gold.  The southern regions of Afghanistan is believed to contain large gold deposits, particularly the Helmand Province.  There is an estimated $50 billion in gold and copper deposits in Ghazni province.

The Afghan government signed a deal with Afghan Krystal Natural Resources Co. (a local company) to invest up to $50 million in the Qara Zaghan Mine in the northern Baghlan Province.  Qara Zaghan was the country’s second gold mine, and production there was planned to begin by 2013. The mine’s gold reserves were not yet known, but the company intended to spend the next 2 years exploring the site. Investors from Indonesia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States were backing the project. The first gold mine was being developed by Westland general trading LLC of the United Arab Emirates at Nor Aaba near the border with Tajikistan in northern Takhar Province.

The mine was expected to provide 4 million to 5 million dollars per year in royalties to the government.

Iron Ore

The best known and largest iron oxide deposit in Afghanistan is located at Hajigak in Bamyan Province.  The deposit itself stretches over 32 km and contains 16 separate zones, up to 5 km in length, 380 m wide and extending 550 m down dip, seven of which have been studied in detail.  The ore occurs in both primary and oxidised states.  The primary ore accounts for 80% of the deposit and consists of magnetite, pyrite and minor chalcopyrite.  The remaining 20% is oxidised and consists of three hematitic ore types.  The deposit remained un-mined in 2006.

The presence of coking coal nearby at Shabashak in the Dar-l-Suf District and large iron ore resources made the deposit viable for future development of an Afghan steel industry.

Open pit mining and blast furnace smelting operations were envisioned by an early feasibility study.  The Hajigak also includes the unusual niobium, a soft metal used in the production of superconducting steel.

Lithium

Lithium is a vital metal that is mostly used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars.  It is believed that Afghanistan has plenty of lithium.

The country’s lithium deposits occur in dry lake beds in the form of lithium chloride, located in the western Province of Herat and Nimroz and in the central east Province of Ghazni.  The geologic setting is similar to those found in Bolivia and Chile.  The deposits are also found in hard rock in the form of spodumene in pegmatites in the north-eastern Provinces of Badakhshan, Nangarhar, Nuristan, and Uruzgan.  A pegmatite in the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan was reported to contain 20% to 30% spodumene.

Marble

Afghanistan also has considerable amount of marble in different parts of the country.  The Doost Marble Factory in the city of Herat began operation in recent years.  According to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, current Afghan marble exports are estimated at 15 million dollars per year.  With improved extraction and processing techniques, a suitable infrastructure, and much-needed investment, the industry has the potential to grow into a $450 million per year business.

Rare Earth Elements and Uranium

According to a September 2011 US Geological Survey estimate, the Khanashin carbonatites in the southern Helmand Province have an estimated 1 million metric tonnes of rare earth elements.

The Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is believed to possess uranium reserves, according to Afghan Ministry of Mines.

Just one more piece of evidence that Afghanistan’s mineral sector has a bright future.

 

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