Korea Zinc sees US opportunities as it targets big copper growth

14th May 2024 By: Bloomberg

The world’s largest zinc smelter is planning to significantly expand its copper output, taking advantage of growth opportunities in the US as it seeks to become a leading player in the global transition to renewable energy.

Korea Zinc, which also processes nickel, is looking to increase its copper production to 150 000 t/y by 2028 from around 30 000 t in 2023, chairman Yun Choi said in an interview in New York.

The production boost is one part of the Korean company’s strategy to branch out into new areas of growth — battery metals, recycling and renewables — while preserving its 50-year-old zinc refining roots. Copper has become a much sought-after metal for building everything from solar panels to power grids and electric vehicles.

To achieve its copper goal, Korea Zinc plans to leverage scraps and waste materials, embracing an “urban mining” concept that reuses a city’s waste. “This is a much more profitable way of producing copper, and because it is 100% recycled, it happens to be a much more sustainable way to produce copper,” Choi said.

And that’s where the US becomes key, he said, because of the country’s vast resource of secondary materials.

“When it comes to urban mines, the best mines come with the best cities — the most developed cities,” Choi said. “So the US is a good place to have that, and to grow in that world.”

He added that the US has a much lower recycling rate than Europe, which “presents a very big opportunity for us.” The US focus also comes as President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has provided incentives for boosting EV manufacturing as the government seeks to reduce dependence on Chinese materials in supply chains.

Korea Zinc has several operations in the US at the moment, focusing on recycling end-of-life materials such as electronics, auto parts, solar panels, and batteries, as well as the extraction of metals including copper, silver, nickel, cobalt and lithium. It bought scrap metal trading company Kataman Metals in April.

The Seoul-based company is also building a nickel refinery in Korea that is scheduled to come online in the first half of 2026. Choi said the 42 000-t/y facility will be the largest non-Chinese nickel refinery in the world.

“Because of the ways in which we’ll source the nickel from various places, this nickel that we will produce will be for EVs and it will be IRA compliant,” said Choi.