Tenke Fungurume, located in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in central Africa, is one of the biggest and highest-grade copper-cobalt deposits in the world.
Producing since 2009, the giant copper and cobalt mine is owned and operated by Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM). China Molybdenum (CMOC), the world’s second-biggest cobalt producer, currently holds a controlling 80% stake in TFM with Gecamines, Congo’s state-owned mining firm, holding the remaining 20% stake.
Production from the Tenke Fungurume mine remained stable despite the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, as its copper output saw a 2.61% year-on-year increase to 182,597 tonnes (t), whereas the cobalt production decreased by 4.11% to 15,436t.
Bolstered by the post-pandemic surge in copper and cobalt prices, the Chinese operator announced a £1.8bn ($2.51bn) investment plan in August 2021 to double the annual production capacity at Tenke Fungurume by increasing the annual copper and cobalt output by 200,000t and 17,000t respectively by 2023.
The announcement came less than a month after CMOC commenced trial production from a separate expansion project launched in early 2020 to boost TFM’s daily ore processing capacity by 10,000t to 25,000t. The project is expected to fully ramp up by adding 88,500 tonnes per annum (tpa) of copper cathode and 7,280tpa of cobalt hydroxide production in 2022.
China Molybdenum’s copper and cobalt business in the DRC
CMOC became the operator of the Tenke Fungurume mine by acquiring 56% of TFM’s equity from US-based miner Freeport-McMoRan (FCX) for $2.1bn ($2.65bn) in November 2016.
It further increased its stake in the mine to 80% by acquiring BHR Newwood DRC Holdings from Chinese private equity firm BHR for £882m ($1.14bn) in January 2019. CMOC had assisted BHR in purchasing a 24% stake in TFM from Canada-based Lundin Mining in April 2017.
China Molybdenum also acquired a 95% stake in the Kisanfu mine, one of the world’s biggest undeveloped copper-cobalt deposits, located approximately 33km south-west of Tenke Fungurume, from Freeport-McMoRan for £415m ($550m) in December 2020.
Tenke Fungurume project location, geology and mineralisation
The Tenke Fungurume copper-cobalt mine comprises contiguous mining concessions covering more than 1,500km2 within the DRC’s southernmost province Katanga, approximately 177km north-west of Lubumbashi.
The main ore bodies for the project include Kwatebala, Fungurume, Tenke (formerly Goma), Kabwe, Shimbidi, and Fwaulu.
The Tenke Fungurume copper-cobalt deposits are located on the northern edge of the Central African Copper Belt (CACB), which, extending from Kolwezi in the DRC to Luanshya in Zambia, features some of the world’s highest-grade sediment-hosted stratiform copper deposits.
The deposits possess oxide, sulphide as well as mixed ore zones with the main copper-cobalt ore minerals occurring as malachite, chalcocite, chrysocolla, digenite, bornite, carrollite, and hetrogenite, while dolomite comprises the bulk of the host strata.
Copper and cobalt reserves at Tenke Fungurume
The Tenke Fungurume mine was estimated to hold 176.8 million tonnes (Mt) of recoverable ore reserves grading 2.1% copper and 0.30% cobalt as of December 2020. It can sustain 32 years of mining operations at an annual ore production rate of 5.54Mt.
Exploration drilling for the Tenke Fungurume mine expansion
CMOC carried out approximately 34.3km of diamond drilling along with exploration activities around the oxidised and mixed ore bodies of Kalwilu, Mulilo, Kachimilombe, Fungurume VI south extension, Tenke, Fwalu, Mudi, Shinkusu and other regions within the Tenke Fungurume concession during 2020.
It plans to add three production lines of 12.4Mtpa copper-cobalt ore processing capacity including 3.3Mtpa for oxidised ores and 9.1Mtpa for mixed ores by 2023, as part of the £1.8bn ($2.51bn) Tenke Fungurume expansion plan announced in August 2021.
Mining and ore processing at Tenke Fungurume
Conventional open-pit mining method is employed for ore extraction from Tenke Fungurume. Copper is recovered from the extracted ore through atmospheric leaching, followed by solvent extraction and electrowinning.
Cobalt hydroxide is produced through sulphur dioxide leaching and hydrometallurgy recycling, followed by purification and precipitation.
The copper cathode and cobalt hydroxide products are trucked and railed to the ports in Durban, South Africa and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, for overseas export.
IXM, a subsidiary of CMOC and the world’s third-biggest base metal trader, is responsible for the external sales of the entire copper and cobalt output of the Tenke Fungurume mine.
While the existing tailings facilities are located to the north of the processing plant site, a second tailings pond at Kwatebala was under construction as of December 2020.
CMOC also progressed in the construction of several roads as well as in the mine zone power supply project in 2020.
The electricity for the Tenke Fungurume operations is supplied from the national grid, while the water is sourced from local boreholes as well as from run-off water collection areas.
China Ruilin Engineering Technology and Dalian Dashan Metallurgical Engineering Technology have been engaged by CMOC to perform the feasibility study for the mixed ore expansion project at Tenke Fungurume.
Hatch was hired by Freeport-McMoRan during 2011 and 2012 for the detailed engineering, construction support services, as well as the procurement of process equipment and facilities for the second phase expansion of the mine to increase the copper and cobalt production capacities to 190,000tpa and 15,000tpa, respectively.
GRD Minproc (now AMEC) prepared the feasibility study, while Golder Associates was responsible for the environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) of the project in 2007.
Tenke Fungurume mine history
Although the exploration and drilling activities in the Tenke Fungurume region date back to 1918, industrial-scale production from the deposits could never take place due to the lack of appropriate technology and because of economic and political issues as artisanal mining remained prevalent in the area until late 2005.
Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM) was incorporated and granted the mining concession in 1996. TFM’s initial shareholders included Gecamines (20%), US-based Phelps Dodge Corporation (56%), and Canada-based Tenke Mining (24%).
The construction works on the mining project were started in late 2006, while a feasibility study based on the Kwatebala orebody, along with the environmental and social impact assessment (EISA) of the project, was completed in 2007.
Freeport-McMoRan acquired Phelps Dodge to become the operator of the project in early 2007, while Lundin Mining acquired Tenke Mining in July 2007.
TFM commenced copper production in the first quarter of 2009, followed by cobalt production in the second quarter. It achieved the design production capacity of 115,000tpa of cathode copper and 8,000tpa of cobalt hydroxide by the end of the same year.
The production capacity was subsequently improved through debottlenecking and plant upgrades to 132,000tpa of copper and 11,000tpa cobalt, which was further increased to 195,000tpa of copper and 15,000tpa cobalt in phase two expansion that was implemented between 2011 and 2013 with an estimated investment of £550m ($850m).