Have you ever wondered what mining in 2050 looks like? Jeff Hamilton, Director of Strategy & Alliances, GEOVIA at Dassault Systèmes, fast-forwards 32 years into the future to examine how the natural resources industry will evolve and be impacted by dramatic changes in the global landscape brought about by a future population increase.
Prediction 1: Rapid increase in urbanization will put pressure on our resources
By 2050, it is predicted that the world’s population will grow from our current base of about 7.6 billion to about 9.8 billion, representing a staggering 28% increase. Furthermore, this population growth will be uneven, concentrated in mainly Africa, followed by Asia (India and Indonesia). Additionally, 70% of the world’s future population will be concentrated in urban areas – existing cities and ones that have yet to be built.
Faced with the spectre of mega-cities, governments and organizations will have to seriously consider infrastructure to be developed, level of refurbishment required for existing structures, money that will have to be spent and importantly, the stress on our finite natural resources.
In 2050, the products of mining will be all the more crucial and the sector will have to rethink the impact of increased consumption on a limited resource (with respect to how things are extracted, recycled or conserved).
Prediction 2: Societal structures and human interactions will evolve
For the last 10,000 years, humans have lived a largely sedentary lifestyle within the agricultural revolution, which led to the creation of city and nation-states. In our modern world, dramatic changes in technology have started to disrupt our traditional notions of these societal structures, and will only become more pronounced as we move closer to 2050.
Distributed autonomous peer-to-peer trust (DAPP or ADPP), or blockchain technology is one such example, providing a new way of exchange value amongst peers who have no knowledge about each other and characterized by a lack of central authority governing their transactions.
The rise of the sharing or gig economy also has a significant impact on how we organise ourselves (think Uber and Spotify). Some places, like Dubai, have essentially no taxes and exist in a “pay as you go” ecosystem. As we contemplate 32 years of change, DAAPT and the sharing economy and “asset light” lifestyles will have a profound effect on our societal organization.
Prediction 3: Natural resources consumption and extraction techniques will change
As our population increases, natural resources consumption will be significantly impacted. In the case of mining, a 20% to 25% increase will obviously require more resource extraction. New standards and methods for “cradle-to-cradle” product lifecycle management will have to be developed to ensure that raw materials recycling are optimized. To this end, Apple announced in 2017 that they would stop using freshly-mined minerals for their products.
There are fixed amounts of mineral and bulk commodity resources that are not easily scaled for significant population increases and likely associated consumption. It is also likely that individual asset ownership will decrease as more “sharing economy” options are employed and asset utilization rates increase because their use is optimized.
With improvements in sensor technologies and resources modeling, we should be able to move less material to get to the resource to be extracted.
To paraphrase Michelle Ash of Barrick Gold, “Do we have higher quality models that allow us to drill holes, then liquefy the minerals and extract them with a substantially less impactful mining operation?” It is expected that in-situ resource extraction will increase significantly.
Prediction 4: Cognitive human advancements will be driven by tech
Today, numerous companies are working to enhance human cognition (also known as human enhancement) with the aid of digital technology embedded in the bodies and brains of people. Human enhancement will allow people to connect to the internet, or a given platform for bio-hacked collaboration. Digital-silicone implants in the brain will enable interpersonal communication on the order of what has historically been considered telepathy. Improved cognitive abilities will allow enhanced humans to “compete” more effectively with future robotic life forms enabled with general artificial intelligence.
While there is disagreement about the timeline of human enhancement, particularly around Neural Lace and brain implants, it’s pretty clear that human enhancement advances in the next 32 years will profoundly reshape our world.
Prediction 5: Space mining may be real by 2050
Given our 32-year time horizon, it is entirely feasible to envision a private mission to the mars and even lunar mining. There are a few companies, like Moon Express, that are working to send spacecraft to the moon and mine the ice at the moons poles for rocket fuel. It’s been postulated that asteroids that have crashed into the moon have valuable platinum group elements. It is also likely that rare earth elements exist on the moon.
The economic viability of mining the moon and returning ore to the Earth is still currently in question. What makes more sense in the short term is that the ice in the lunar polar caps are mined for rocket fuel, along with platinum and rare earth (or more like rare moon elements) elements, and used for future lunar habitation modules or space stations. In any case, the private interest in these activities is high and it is likely to be a reality by 2050.
Prediction 6: Utility-scale batteries will be needed to store alternative energy
Mining is an energy consumptive activity that would benefit from a larger percentage of the energy used coming from renewable sources. Frequently, alternative energy sources (the generation locations) are not the load. Alternative energy is also sporadic. To be widely adopted, “utility scale” batteries are needed to store the alternative electrical energy when it’s available and then allow for its use when needed, in this case for mining. While advances have been made in battery storage there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The development of workable utility scale battery storage will allow for more even electric cost saving per kilowatt hour since mining companies will be able to store energy from lower cost sources and use what is stored in times of peak demand when the cost per kilowatt hour increases.
Prediction 7: Robots will be employed in dangerous mining activities
Decades of innovation in robotics have resulted in purpose-built robots for many industries, such as the Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics. Atlas is electro-hydraulic, stands 1.5 metres tall, can carry an 11 kg payload and has LIDAR and stereoscopic vision.
In the mining case, robots that follow Atlas will be employed in areas of the mine, like the face, that are dangerous for humans. By the year 2050 robots will be dramatically advanced from the Atlas of today and be much less expensive. We will also see both general and narrow artificial intelligence increase in usage by 2050.
Prediction 8: Workforces and skillsets will evolve
To cope with a dramatically different technology landscape, our workforce will also need to change, particularly for human-machine interfacing to manage the 35-50 million predicted IoT devices.
Jobs such as computer engineering and electro-hydraulic maintenance, which have surged in the past decade, will become more sophisticated and specialized. New technology will require new instrumentation/process control, data scientists, mathematicians and more – all while working in a hyper-flexible, collaborative, mobile environment.
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