European Copper Industry

Structure of the EU Copper Industry

The front end of the European copper industry is made up of three distinct sectors:

  • Miners, who extract naturally occurring ores and convert them into ‘concentrates’ (made up of roughly one third copper, one third sulphur and one third iron silicate)
  • Copper producers, usually referred to as smelters and refiners, convert concentrates, imported intermediate materials and end of life scrap into copper metal
  • Semi-fabricators then convert this metal, along with clean scrap, into products, such as wire-rod, tubes, sheet and strip, for use down the value chain.

The number of companies who operate in all three of these sectors is extremely limited.

Miners

In 2016, around 916 kilotonnes of copper were mined within the EU, accounting for around 5% of the world’s total production (source: International Copper Study Group). The EU’s mine copper sites are in Finland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Producers (smelters and refiners)

In 2016, the EU28’s refined copper production was around 2.6 million tonnes, representing around 12% of worldwide production (source: ICSG). The main production sites are in Germany, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Bulgaria. The final products from smelting and refining (copper cathodes) are made through electrolytic processes. These are either sold directly into the market, or melted and cast into shapes, typically referred to as billets and cakes, for easier processing by downstream users.

About 45% of raw material supplies to the EU28’s copper refineries are purchased, on the international market, in the forms of copper concentrates, blister, anodes and scrap. The remaining 55% comes from EU-based mining industry, copper-bearing residues and scrap.

With copper prices being global, it is increasingly difficult for EU producers to compete on the global market for the primary and secondary (scrap) raw materials they need. Today, six companies employ around 10,000 people across a dozen EU refineries. Only two companies’ refineries are partially integrated with their own mining operations.

Semi-fabricators

The products of the refineries (cathodes and shapes) are the major raw materials for the manufacturers of semi-fabricated products. With an output of more than 150% of the EU refinery output, semi-fabricators need to import cathodes and/or secure access to a significant amount of “clean” scrap – in the range of 1 million tonnes per year.

The 2016 production of semi-fabricated copper and copper alloy products was 4.4 million tonnes (source, ICSG) which is around 20% of worldwide production. The range of semi-fabricated products is very wide, but consists primarily of rods, profiles, wires, tubes, sheet and strip. Applications are even more diverse, covering sectors such as electrical engineering, automobiles, construction, machinery, shipbuilding, aircraft, precision instruments, watches and clocks.

The electrical wire-rod sector accounts for just over half of the semi-fabricated production. Some 20 companies employ around 3,000 people in total. Many more companies operate in the semi-fabricated products sector. About 80 companies, employing some 35,000 people throughout the EU28, produce copper and copper alloy rods, bars, wires, sections, tubes, sheet and strip. Around 30 companies have integrated foundries, for the in-house production of cakes, billets and other shapes while the others purchase their requirements on the merchant market.

Many other metals are used in copper alloys. There are estimated to be over 500 different alloys available in the EU market place. The most common alloying elements are zinc, nickel, lead, tin, silver and beryllium.