EnviroCopper is a copper exploration, development, and production business formed in March 2019 to focus on stranded copper projects previously considered too low-grade for development. Thor Mining (LSE:THR) has the right to earn in to up to 30% of the company, while the remainder is held by two businesses called Environmental Copper Recovery and Environmental Metals Recovery.

With copper prices at multi-year lows, EnviroCopper’s innovative, low-cost, and low-impact approach to copper extraction has never looked more relevant. As the firm’s work to build up production and expand its portfolio continues, Thor’s exposure could provide shareholders with a highly-significant opportunity for returns.

Low-impact recovery

EnviroCopper plans to approach assets using a low-environmental impact style of metal production called in-situ recovery (ISR). Unlike conventional mining operations, ISR centres around a chemical process called ‘leaching’, that – in layman’s terms – involves dissolving minerals underground in a solution before extracting them at the surface. As ISR is much cheaper and quicker than actually building a copper mine, EnviroCopper believes that the technique can bring lower-grade projects into economic territory.

A video from Excelsior Mining explaining the ISR process in detail

Although it is well established in phosphate and uranium mining, ISR’s introduction to the copper sector has been relatively recent. Indeed, as it stands, two of the only examples of the method’s application in this way are the Gunnison and Florence copper projects in Arizona, operated by Excelsior Mining and Taseko respectively. However, EnviroCopper sees a bright future for the technique and plans to spearhead its growth.

Proof of concept

EnviroCopper’s initial focus will be its 75pc-owned Kapunda project, which is found around 90km north-west of Adelaide in Australia. By achieving production at the asset, the firm hopes to demonstrate ISR’s operational viability in the copper market and take the technology to other projects.

Aided by historical mining data and environmental and hydrogeological work, EnviroCopper has estimated Kapunda contains an ISR-amenable inferred copper resource of 119,000ts. As announced in April, the company has also been able to recover gold from samples taken from the project and work to ascertain whether it can establish a resource for the precious metal is ongoing.

Before commercialisation, EnviroCopper must complete a pre-feasibility study and a definitive feasibility study at Kapunda.  It will also have to meet any necessary environmental, social, and regulatory requirements and secure financing.  Handily, it will a $2.8m government-issued research grant will support it in these efforts- indeed, the firm expects these funds to take the project through to demonstration of feasibility.

Bigger picture

Once progress has been made at Kapunda, EnviroCopper will move on to Moonta - its second 75pc-held project. Moonta is located around 160km north-east of Adelaide within the historical copper triangle of South Australia, where around 300,000ts of copper were mined and processed between the 1860s and 1920s.

Although it is an earlier-stage project than Kapunda, Moonta is also thought to be a much larger opportunity. In August 2019, EnviroCopper announced an initial inferred resource estimate for the asset of 66.1MMts grading 0.17pc copper. This translates to 114,000ts of contained copper considered amenable to ISR, taking EnviroCopper’s business-wide managed resource inventory 233,000ts. However, this initial figure was formed from the analysis of just 164 drill holes at Moonta. This lead to the identification of three copper deposits, called Wombat, Bruce, and Larwood. A further 308 holes already drilled over these deposits will feature in future resource modelling once quality assurance has been completed, providing an obvious opportunity for upside. What’s more, all three deposits remain open along strike or at depth – providing EnviroCopper with a chance to identify mineralisation beyond that already discovered.

Location of EnviroCopper’s ISR-amenable copper projects (Source: Thor Mining)

Perfect conditions

If EnviroCopper can prove ISR’s operational viability in the copper arena, then it hopes to introduce the technique at projects far beyond Kapunda and Moonta. Indeed, the firm has said that it aims to develop an expanded portfolio of opportunities, initially focusing solely on South Australia but potentially moving into other territories in the future.

The company has also said it plans to list on a recognised exchange, potential providing interested market participants with a way of getting exposure beyond a Thor investment in the future.

With copper prices currently sitting at two-year lows, the need for low-cost supply is particularly stark – especially given the forecast explosion in demand over coming years thanks to the rise of electric vehicles.  ISR potentially provides an ideal solution to this scenario – for context, all-in production costs per pound of cathode copper at Gunnison and Florence come in at just $1.23 and $1.10 respectively.

The potential presented by EnviroCopper and its assets, then, is clear – especially if the business can use its first-mover advantage in Australia to drive the sector’s growth. Importantly, Thor’s considerable stake in the company both diversifies its potential revenue streams and provides shareholders with yet another, significant upside opportunity. Indeed, in June 2019, executive chairman Mick Billing told MiningMaven, that the value of the firm’s copper exposure could even surpass that of its more established tungsten and molybdenum operations.

Author: Daniel Flynn

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