Rory Block sang songs written more than fifty years ago. She wrote many of the songs she sang during the last fifty years. Watching an accomplished artist, you realize fifty years is not all that long. I enjoyed her concert on a Friday during the summer jazz festival. Two days later we enjoyed John Boutte’s concert. He described himself as “a mix of races, just like you-all will be in five hundred years.” This set me wondering what mining would be like in fifty and five hundred years. We can only guess at five hundred, but for fifty, we can extrapolate current trends to venture a prediction. Here are some.

In a large workshop in Iowa, I watched as the computer connection between the harvester and the diagnostic center in Illinois is made. The screen flashes an instruction, a part is removed, and a replacement ordered, to be slotted in when it arrives by express mail the next day. A high school summer student tells me he is going to the local community college to study enough engineering and computer science to be able to come back to the farm he loves and work on the ploughs and harvesters and other large farm machines as a computer specialist. Modular machines controlled by computers and serviced by this new generation is already here, of course, but in the next fifty years just imagine how slick and sophisticated they will become.

Robots and computers will change mining in the next fifty years, no doubt. But an equally powerful agent of change might be bacteria. Of course these little critters are currently earning their keep in many a heap leach pad. But one can only wonder at what might be done as we sequence the gene code of bacteria and make designer bacteria to go where we would rather not and do what we cannot. If I were young again this is the area of research I would choose.

In Los Angeles, with a near majority Hispanic population, we hear Spanish everywhere from McDonalds to the construction site. It is the lingua franca of industry and the Californian farming community. It is too much to take a guess at how long it will take for Spanish to be the language of all mines in north and South America? At an average of $40 an hour in the Alberta oil sands mines, how long before the magnet of money brings linguistic change? Keep in mind that between 1870 and 1900, the U.S. population more than doubled from thirty million to nearly seventy million. Could the same happen in Canada? Mining would provide ample opportunity for a doubled Canadian population.

A friend who hails from southern India, left his job as a consultant with a reputable American firm. Now he makes his money providing overnight calculations and computer modeling to his former employees and other small consultants around town. His friends and relatives in his home town in India and the graduates they employ run the slope stability analysis overnight. All you need to do is fill in the form, hand it to him by about five in the evening and the next morning the answers will be on your desk. Actually he started doing that for one- and two-man geotechnical and engineering geology firms who could not keep up with computing demands. Now his associates can do the most sophisticated model runs for a full suite of civil, mining, environmental, and scientific studies. Why should the average mine, staffed by well-educated technical people employ an army of consultants and pay their big-city salaries, when an e-mail or two and a video-conference can have them the computer answers the very next morning?

Extrapolate this trend, and it seems inevitable that one day a big and reputable consulting company to the mining industry will be headquartered in India with local specialists in the field close to the mine and mining clients. Maybe this very site will be produced in Calcutta with correspondents in all nooks and crannies of the mining world?

Of course if current consolidation in the industry continues there won’t be all that many head offices to service. Maybe it will be like Johannesburg used to be fifty years ago: all the big mining companies within a five minute walk of each other in the downtown area. This recollection proves, however, that social change will change the mining industry beyond out ability to predict in the next fifty years.

Another Crusade and Alberta will be the financial and political capital of Canada supplying the world’s oil, challenged only by the U.S. oil shale industry. Or will nuclear power supply the energy for the air conditioners needed to cool a warming world? Uranium mining could boom. Cultured diamonds could become as popular as cultured pearls and diamond mining wane in the face of taste and melting winter roads. Bacteria may produce methane in abundant quantities from corn waste and the uranium mines could shut in the face of high waste disposal costs.

Sand and gravel may be in high demand to protect coastal cities faced with rising sea levels, and quarries and gravel pits supplying the dike materials may be as busy as mines supplying metals for equipment to move the soil and gravel.

On the downside: the north American property “bubble” could burst, demand plummet, and mines once again could be faced with a 1983 crash. Many argue this will not happen as long as Chinese and Indian commodity demand remains high, but who can tell the course of Asian politics? In the last fifty years, there have been changes so great that anything is possible in the next fifty. We can only hope that we are entering a period of sustained growth and stability and demand from that part of the world. But soon enough they will have to face issues of sustainability and environmental protection and safety statistics. I hope that in fifty years, the Chinese mining safety rate is the envy of the world.

An idealistic friend bragged that with recycling, drifts in fashion, and changing life styles we will phase out the need for mines in the next fifty years. Except for cultured diamonds I cannot see this happening. Only the most pessimistic perspective can conjure up scenarios that reduce the demand for mine-produced products. AIDS or avian flu could do what the 1918 epidemic did to world populations. Religious conflicts could decimate populations. A rogue nation could set off a nuclear explosion that initiates chain reactions of protectionism. But then maybe we will need to mine more to repair the damage wrought by these nightmare fears. I am told that no two nations both hosting McDonalds have ever gone to war. Let us hope that in fifty years we can say that no two nations exchanging mining products have gone to war. (Is that true now?)

And finally on an optimistic note, some futuristic thinking from a young man who could well be around to see it all come to fruition: With the development of drug resistant bacteria, medical researchers are looking to alternative treatment methods. Bacteriophages, a type of virus that infects bacterial cells, have been used in the former Soviet Union for decades to kill infection-causing bacteria. Because of limited access to Western antibiotics, researchers in the Soviet Union turned to phages as a cheap alternative. Fortunately for them, it worked. I have not heard of any phage treatments applied anywhere here in North America, but in the former Soviet Georgia, phage treatments are available and widely used in place of antibiotics.

Acid rock drainage is a ubiquitous problem originating from oxidation of sulphide-containing tailings and waste rock produced by the extractive industries. Acidic and toxic water is like a chronic infection that won’t go away, in that it is the unpleasant result of the unwanted activity of bacteria. Conventional ARD treatments today mostly rely on treating the results of this bacterial activity, without ‘curing’ the source of the problem. The use of bactericides to actually kill the bacteria is uneconomical, and the chemicals have the potential to do downstream damage to beneficial bacteria in the environment.

Biotechnology could be used to solve this problem. Phage treatments could be used to specifically target and kill ARD-generating bacteria. New bacteria labeling techniques could be used to identify ARD hotspots and treat them before the acidity could leach out metals present in the minerals. Phages would be entirely harmless to the environment except to the ‘bad’ bacteria they target. Somewhere in head office, a technician would monitor ARD treatment systems at a remote site by a sophisticated network of sensors, and remotely treat waste rock piles and tailings dumps.