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Copper demand to boom as new technology drives power consumption, Trafigura says

FILE PHOTO: Raw copper from Zambia awaits export in a warehouse at Newlyn Terminal at Bayhead at the port in Durban

LONDON (Reuters) - Flourishing activity in the electric vehicle, power infrastructure, AI and automation sectors will lead to at least 10 million metric tons of additional copper consumption over the next decade, commodity trader Trafigura told Reuters.

Technological developments such as artificial intelligence and automation, and the energy transition, which includes electric vehicles and renewable energy, have already driven up demand prospects for copper cable used to conduct electricity.

Estimates of new demand from these applications vary, but Graeme Train, head of metals analysis at Swiss-based Trafigura, said one third of the 10 million tons of new demand would come from the electric vehicle sector.

"A third is electricity generation, transmission and distribution, and the rest is for things like automation, manufacturing capex and cooling systems within data centres," he said. Growth in data centres is related to AI.

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Accelerating production of electric vehicles, solar panels and grid investment in China, and a pick-up in manufacturing activity in the top consumer, has already boosted demand for copper used in the power and construction industries.

That combined with tight supplies of refined copper metal and concentrate has propelled copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) to two-year peaks near $10,000 a ton.

Copper industry sources say part of the reason for the price surge are sliding stocks in LME registered warehouses, which at 121,200 tonnes have dropped more than 35% since October last year.

Tight supplies of mined copper or concentrate, the feedstock for copper metal, due to disruptions such as the closure of First Quantum's Cobre mine in Panama last year have also helped fuel copper's upward price momentum this year.

Analysts have been revising their forecasts of the copper market balance since in December when Anglo American also cut its production guidance, and some now expect significant shortages in the copper market estimated at around 26 million tonnes this year.

Train expects copper demand to be bolstered by industrialisation and urbanisation in the emerging world, particularly in India where consumption per person per year is only half a kg.

In China and the developed world, per capita copper consumption is 10 kgs and seven kgs respectively, he said.

(Reporting by Pratima Desai; Editing by Jan Harvey)