Rio Tinto has begun underground production at the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in Mongolia following a $7bn expansion.

Oyu Tolgoi is now set to become the world’s fourth-largest copper mine by 2030. Between 2028 and 2036, it is expected to produce enough copper annually to manufacture six million electric vehicles – around 500,000 tonnes.

While the open-pit portion of Oyu Tolgoi has been successfully operating for more than a decade, the underground expansion was hampered by disagreements between the Mongolian government and Rio Tinto. These disputes were finally settled in January 2022 after the multinational waived a loan it provided to the Mongolian government.

Following Rio Tinto’s buyout of Turquoise Hill, it now owns a 66% stake in the Oyu Tolgoi project, with the remaining 34% held by the Mongolian government.

The occasion was marked by a visit from the Prime Minister of Mongolia, Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene, and Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm. The pair ventured 1.3km underground at the facility before attending a ceremony with employees and government officials.

Oyun-Erdene said: “I am proud to celebrate this major milestone with our partner Rio Tinto as we look towards Mongolia becoming one of the world’s key copper producers. The start of underground production at Oyu Tolgoi demonstrates our ability to work together with investors in a sustainable manner and become a trusted partner.”

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Stausholm added: “We thank the Government of Mongolia for their commitment as our partner in achieving this remarkable milestone. We are starting underground production 1.3km beneath the remote Gobi desert from an ore body that will be critical for global copper production and Mongolia’s ongoing economic development.

“The copper produced in this truly world-class, high-technology mine will help deliver the electrification needed for a net-zero future and grow Rio Tinto’s copper business.”