The majority of copper produced is used by the wire and cable markets and takes advantage of the metal’s electrical conductivity, corrosion resistance and thermal conductivity. Applications that make use of copper’s electrical conductivity, such as wires (including wiring used in buildings), cables and electrical connectors, account for around 60% of total demand, while about 20% of demand comes principally from the construction industry which uses copper to produce plumbing pipe and roof sheeting, owing to the metal’s corrosion resistance qualities. Copper’s thermal conductivity also makes it suitable for use in heat transfer applications such as air conditioning and refrigeration, which make up some 10% of total demand. Other applications include structural and aesthetic uses.
Around 60% of all refined nickel is used in stainless steel. Other uses include high corrosion resistant alloys for use in chemical plants, superalloys that can withstand extreme temperatures and are predominantly used in aviation, high technology electronic uses and as a substrate for chromium plating.
Zinc is used predominantly in galvanising and alloys. Steel coated with zinc (galvanised steel) exhibits high levels of corrosion resistance. This application is responsible for around 50% of total demand. Zinc based alloys in die casting, ranging from automotive components to toys and models, account for around 10-12% of demand, with copper based zinc alloys (brass) accounting for 15-17%. Zinc semis are used as roofing products and in dry cell batteries (8-10%). Chemical and other applications make up the remainder of refined demand (approximately 13-15%), where zinc is used in a diverse range of products and applications, including tyres, paints, pharmaceuticals and chemical processing.
With the exception of nickel, base metals industry ownership is presently relatively fragmented. Currently, the approximate global market shares of the four largest copper, nickel and zinc mine producers are: 35%, 46% and 25%, respectively. Producers are price-takers and there are relatively few opportunities for product differentiation.
The industry is capital intensive and is likely to become more so as high grade surface deposits are exhausted and deeper and/or lower grade deposits are developed, requiring greater economies of scale in order to be commercially viable. Real prices of copper, nickel and zinc are cyclical but have tended to decline over the long term. The decline in real prices reflects the long term trend in cost reduction as a result of advances in technology and lower input costs. Average margins have, therefore, tended to be maintained.
For much of this decade, the ongoing industrialisation and urbanisation of China have driven demand for a range of commodities. This contributed substantially to a base metal price up-cycle that was unprecedented both in its extent and its longevity, with the country now accounting for an estimated 28%, 22% and 33% of global first-use demand for refined copper, nickel and zinc, respectively. The global credit crisis and significant slowing of economic growth in the second half of the year, however, have caused a very sudden and extensive fall in base metals demand and prices. This has already resulted in mine and smelter closures (particularly zinc and nickel) and the delaying of new projects and additions to existing capacity.