Editorial: Disruption – The new normal

Attendees at the PDAC convention in Toronto. Photo by Carl A. Williams.

What was surprising about the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference this year was how many people actually showed up, with Covid-19 ripping around the world. According to figures from Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Centre on March 10, 118,101 people have been infected and 4,262 have died.

While many conferences and large gatherings elsewhere have been cancelled, the March 1-4 Toronto-based mining show carried on, whether people really wanted to be there or not. Attendance dipped just 10% to 23,144 people, 2,699 fewer than the 25,843 who attended in 2019.

Over the course of the event, I only spotted two people wearing facemasks, and, as far as I know, only Rob McEwen of McEwen Mining decided not to give a scheduled presentation, while another speaker, Nicky Shiels, a commodity strategist at Scotiabank in New York, stayed home and delivered her presentation by video-conference.

Mark Bristow of Barrick Gold and Robert Friedland of Ivanhoe Mines turned up as planned to deliver keynote speeches, and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an appearance for the second year in a row.

Friedland, who also attended a special pre-PDAC Red Cloud event on Feb. 28, used both occasions to talk about the massive disruption we face with the pivot to the electrification of all things, and the enormous opportunities it presents to miners exploring for and extracting ‘green’ metals like copper, nickel, PGMs and rhodium.

“You have to start thinking about what real electrification means,” he declared at the Red Cloud luncheon. “We’re entering an era of electric everything and this is super-intensive for the metals I’m talking about.”

One of the many imperatives behind electrification is that air pollution associated with massive urbanization is the “greatest environmental risk to global health,” Friedland said, noting that air pollution masks are now a US$4 billion market and, “if you’re going to get a mask, get a good one.” The mine developer and financier pointed to a 2017 study published in The Lancet medical journal that drew a correlation between dementia rates and people living close to heavy traffic and inhaling fumes from cars and trucks with internal combustion engines.

“This explosion of dementia is linked to fine-grained particulates that get into your head and never come out and this is serious stuff and this scientific understanding has just happened,” he warned. “Life is hard — it’s harder if you’re stupid.”

In addition to its role in fighting climate change, copper also will become essential in the control of infectious diseases like Covid-19, Friedland predicted. With its anti-microbial properties, the metal will be employed increasingly as a virus and super-bug killer. As an example of one application, he pointed to Israel’s Argaman Technologies. The company has engineered copper oxide into 100% cotton fibre that it is developing for use in everything from hospital uniforms to hotel linens and face masks.

The Jerusalem-based company ultrasonically blasts enhanced copper-oxide particles into its CottonX material and claims the copper oxide in the fabric can kill 99% of the bacteria and viruses with which it comes into contact. Sonovia, another Israeli company, infuses antiviral, antimicrobial zinc and copper oxide nanoparticles into textiles for facemasks and other protective devices.

Ultimately, the world should be thankful for junior mining companies, which are leading the way in finding new deposits of green metals essential in the electric vehicle and grid storage industries, he declared.

“If we don’t have junior mining companies we wouldn’t have anything … I can assure you the majors couldn’t find a mine if their lives depended on it … [and] without funding the junior companies you can’t get there from here. … There is not going to be an Elon Musk without junior mining companies.”

Tesla’s market cap has surged to more than US$119 billion and the company “can buy Ford for breakfast and be hungry for lunch,” Friedland continued, adding that according to the International Copper Association, copper demand for electric cars alone should rise 900% between now and 2027.

Friedland also cited stats from consulting firm Wood Mackenzie that about US$240 billion will be needed to meet growing metals demand in the next five years.

“We’ve got a big disruption coming here,” he warned. “The oil price is down and they haven’t a clue. They are like deer caught in the headlights. So now comes the Revenge of the Miners.”

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