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Capturing copper in Israel’s wilderness

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Rachelle Kliger l The Media Line for eTurboNews  Apr 18, 2008

(eTN) - If you plan to apply for a job at the Timna copper mines, you can leave your shovel at home. You probably won’t need a wheelbarrow either; certainly not a canary.

These mines shatter any preconceived myths of sooty-faced miners working in harsh conditions in the heart of the earth.

The mines bring state-of the-art technology to the Arava, reviving an age-old industry in a sparsely populated desert in Israel’s remote south.

The new and rehabilitated copper mines are an initiative of AHMSA, a Mexican steel company. The company is currently in the stage of a pilot program and aims to enter into full production by 2010, extracting two million tons of ore, and producing 22,000 tons of 99.9999-percent copper every year.

The enterprise is not the first modern-day attempt to exploit Timna’s copper. The Timna Mining Company was founded in the 1950s as a subsidiary of an Israeli governmental company in order to produce copper on a large scale.

Commercial mining began in 1959, providing employment for hundreds of people, but a decline in the copper industry brought about the final closure of the company in 1984.

Copper is one of the oldest metals used by humans, and ancient Egyptians first began copper mining in Timna more than 6,000 years ago.

The substance has always been heavily used for many purposes due to its unique features (see side bar). While its luster may have waned somewhat in the 1980s, the reddish metal is now making a comeback, and AHMSA is the first to tap into Timna’s treasures.

Carla Garcia-Granados is the CEO of both AHMSA Steel, a company established by AHMSA in 2004, and Arava Mines, which was established a year later and tasked with reopening the mines in Timna.

The decision to reopen the mines today has a practical and economic basis. Copper has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, and similar to other metals, the demand for copper has risen globally, pushing up prices and making it a lucrative product.

China is one of the drivers behind the spike in demand, as copper is a key material in electronic infrastructure, which is being strenuously pursued in the rapidly developing country. Mining technologies have become more sophisticated.

“These two parameters changed the economic calculations,” says Dr. Yaakov Mimran, who heads the Natural Resources Authority in Israel’s Infrastructure Ministry and is the ministry’s mining commissioner. “We found there was justification in giving them permits.”

The new operation is divided into two parts: the mines, where the copper is taken out of the ground, and the plant where the substance is processed and rendered into the end product.

Arava Mines started operating a pilot project in September 2007, and copper is being yielded on a limited production basis, since it is still in the developmental stage of basic engineering and is still awaiting building permits.

The mine already has equipment operating to develop areas and equipment that require refurbishment or replacement. Around a fifth of the required equipment for the mine will be arriving within the next three months. More equipment will follow in several stages, ending in mid-2009.

Around $200 million is being invested in this ambitious project. So far, between $30 and $35 million has already been put down, and AHMSA Steel is hoping to get grants from the Israeli government, given that it is located in a development area and will be creating many jobs in this barren part of the country.

“We’re the only industrial project in the area,” Garcia-Granados says.

While there are currently 120 people working at the Timna Mines, AHMSA hopes to boost this number to 650 jobs by the time the mines are in full production. It will also benefit secondary businesses in the area such as the transportation industry and the Eilat port.

“We are going to be bringing to the area an industry that’s not dependent on the ups and down of tourism and the political situation in the country,” Garcia-Granados says. “It will bring a stable income for many years, and hopefully for a lot of families.”

But the process has not been easy. The serene and spectacular surroundings of Timna and the proximity to Eilat may be appealing to some, but attracting employees is a challenge.

Tourists know Eilat, located 30 kilometers south of Timna, as the country’s main sun-and-sea resort, located at the southern tip of the country on the coast of the Red Sea.

“It’s not where most of the engineers, electricians and operators live. A lot of people will have to relocate and it’s a difficult process,” the CEO says.

For this purpose, the company is considering contacting universities and encouraging more people to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to operate the mines.

Sooty faces? Garcia-Granados laughs.

“The mine you’re thinking of is the mine of the movies. Our equipment is worth $3 million and it does everything for you. You’re not going to see a person like that operating the equipment,” she says, explaining that the operators, in fact, spend a lot of the time sitting down.

“It’s totally automated. Yes, the workers are underground, there’s tunneling and it’s not sunshine all day long, but it’s not physical work. They’re not carrying rocks on their backs.”

At the moment the plan is to export all of the copper produced in this mine, but some Israeli companies have taken to the idea of buying the copper locally rather than being dependent on copper imports, which might change the destination of the final product.

This includes cable companies, which require copper practically as a staple product. Since full production will not begin until 2010, it is hard to project the requirements for the cable industry by that time.

Timna is the only area in Israel where copper is being produced.

The Jordanian Factor

As with other natural resources, the large copper deposit in Israel implies that a similar deposit likely exists in the same region beyond Israel’s borders.

This fact is not lost on Jordan, which is also liaising with AHMSA in Mexico to explore its copper potential.

Unfortunately for Jordan’s economy, but perhaps to the relief of the country’s conservationists, Jordan’s main copper deposit is in a national reserve in Wadi Araba, which makes it untouchable.

However, just south of this reserve is an area spanning 600 square kilometers, which also has copper deposits and is currently being surveyed before it is presented to the government and opened up for bidding.

AHMSA is in touch with Jordan’s Natural Resources Authority (NRA), but Jordan is at the very initial stages of checking this out. In any case, it is unlikely this will make Jordan a copper empire, because the major part of the deposit is in the natural reserve, according to Jaser Darwish, assistant to general director of the Geological Survey, a division of the NRA.

Whether AHMSA can help Jordan and Israel join forces on copper production and consolidate the peace deal they signed in 1994 is a matter of business priority, Garcia-Granados says.

“One of the most important things on any project is to bring economic development to everyone, but we’re a business company, we’re not in the peace business,” she says.


Copper, An Age-Old Treasure

Copper (symbol: Cu) is an element that appears naturally in rocks, soil, water, air, humans animals and plants, and is one of the oldest metals used in human civilization.

Pure copper is usually acquired through several stages. It begins with mining and concentrating ore containing copper sulfide materials. Copper is extracted using electrolysis and other chemical processes.

The United States is the second-largest producer of copper in the world after Chile. Large deposits are also found in Peru, Russia, Canada and parts of Africa.

Copper and its principal alloys, bronze and brass, are recognized in the general public as decorative materials, but historically, copper has always been used for many other functional purposes.

The element is a sought after substance because it is malleable, it has high conductivity of heat and electrical currents and has a high resistance to corrosion. It is second only to silver in electrical conductivity. It does not give off fumes, melt or burn, and it has antibacterial properties, which can help ward off harmful microorganisms. Copper is the third most consumed industrial metal after iron and aluminum.

Copper is used in making wiring, cables, telecommunication products, electrical and electronic devices, transportation equipment and building materials.

The use of copper goes back several millennia. The earliest estimates place the discovery of copper at about 9,000 B.C. in the Middle East.

Today, around 15 million tons of copper are produced annually and it is increasingly being consumed in modern technology and infrastructure. Demand has spiked significantly in the past five years, causing a global climb in copper prices.

The price of copper has doubled in the past three years, and is today traded at more than $8,300 a ton.

This is largely due to the increased consumption of the element in rapidly developing countries such as China, which is hooking up to modern technology and needs large quantities of copper to meet its infrastructure requirements.

Capturing copper in Israel’s wilderness
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