Chile is the world’s leading copper producer (28.3%) and maintains approximately 23.0% of current global reserves. Chile is faced with a significant risk posed by its collection of the most unsustainable and antiquated smelter operations among major copper producers worldwide. Moreover, forecasts also indicate a trend toward higher proportions of copper sulphide ores that carry high impurities, especially arsenic. To achieve the planned pro- duction increases, improve competitiveness in the global market, and reduce reliance on international smelting capacities, Chile must make significant and justifiable investment into new and/or existing smelting operations through equipment modernization. The required investment for upgrades may be on the order of billions of dollars.

This review analyzes current roadblocks faced by the Chilean copper smelters and potential solutions according to environmental, economic and strategic factors. Recent advances in smelting technologies have focused on flash and bath smelting; despite a general trend toward flash furnace systems, recent bath furnace methods (e.g. China’s SKS- BBS) are equally promising, particularly for varying and complex feeds. Strategic policies should focus on regionalized, non-integrated custom smelters, which can handle ores from a variety of sources while reducing overall operating costs. The government must play a fundamental role to incentivise the investments necessary to develop new smelter oper- ations and upgrade existing infrastructure. With a large portion of copper concentrate exports coming from privately owned mines, synergistic efforts with industry partners will be crucial to increase overall smelting capacity and position Chile as a global leader in the smelting of copper concentrates.