As we slowly come off the back of the mining boom, a number of questions are starting to be asked.
Has the boom been played out, where to next, what will happen to iron ore?
But what all are asking is what will be the metal of the future?
What should we be digging that will provide the greatest return?
Perhaps the future is a metal which is a major part of humanity's past - copper.
Iron ore has been the metal that really drove Australia's mining boom.
It was the hero of the hour.
On the back of seemingly unending demand from Asia to fuel the growth of China we saw commodity prices skyrocket and essentially drag our nation out of the Global Financial Crisis.
Coal was also surging head, as both China and India required the energy needed to turn them into first world nations.
As a background to this gold prices also spiked, reaching never before seen heights.
But now the good times are over for these metals and the prices have steadily dropped, stabilising at more reasonable levels, or in some cases plummeting to just above cost levels.
Instead focus is turning to construction, and powering this new world that the mining boom has created, and in turn we are likely to see a steadily increasing demand for copper that, at current levels, the global industry is not able to fulfill.
IBISWorld explains that "many of the products manufactured from copper are associated with infrastructure development.
For example, copper is used in electrical cabling, either insulated or uninsulated, for high-, medium- and low-voltage applications due to its electrical conductivity. Copper and its alloys are also extensively used in piping, valves and in decorative architectural applications (such as door furniture, building façades and roofing)".
"Copper is also used in the manufacture of industrial equipment, such as heat exchangers, pressure vessels and vats, due to its superior heat transfer capabilities and ability to withstand extreme environments."
All major forms of transportation depend on copper such as the hulls of boats and ships to reduce drag and improving fuel consumption.
Cars and trucks rely on copper motors, wiring, radiators, and more; the average automobile contains two kilometres of copper and alloy cables, while the quantity of copper in cars can range from 20 kilograms for smaller cars to 45 kilograms for luxury and hybrid vehicles.
"Copper is critical to power supply, telecommunications and electronic devices, and is directly linked to economic development. For example, six years ago China consumed about 25 per cent of global copper, today it consumes more than 40 per cent," BHP chairman Jac Nasser said.
Copper is one the major arms of BHP, and was initially developed in the 1980s through the acquisition of Utah International from GE for $2.4 billion, today it makes up about 15 per cent of BHP's profit.
The coming consumption
According to a BHP Billiton presentation and recent United Nations data, demand for the metal will increase as many third and second world nations develop, creating long term drivers with increased consumption as they build their infrastructure.
This in part is due to the massive shift humanity is seeing, precipitate a decline in rural populations to greater urbanisation and in turn economic development.
With the global population currently standing at more than 7.1 billion it is almost evenly split 50/50, however "the urban population is expected to grow globally from 3.6 billion (as of 2010) to 4.3 billion (in 2020) and to 5 billion in 2030," the UN data stated, eventually accounting for 60 per cent of the world's total population.
Unicef reports that by 2050 around 70 per cent of the world will live in cities.
Australia will also be one of the most urban nations in the world, with 94 per cent of people living in cities or metropolitan areas.
China and India alone will have cities with more than a billion people living in them.
In the mean time the rural population is predicted to remain flat at around 3.5 billion for the next three decades.
As part of this massive shift towards urban centres commodity demand is forecast to grow in line.
Because these people will need to build, power, and run their cities, and copper will be the metal that will allow them to do so.
According to BHP "Chinese copper intensity doubles from rural (less than 500 000 people) to smallest urban centres; and more than triples from rural to large urban centres".
It is proven that demand evolves with economic development, although "copper [does] plateau later in the industrialisation cycle" both "China and India are still in the early stages of development".
In explicit terms, the total demand for semi fabricated products is expected to grow at three per cent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the coming decade, with the primary drivers China and India sitting at five and ten per cent CAGR respectively.
The hungry beast is literally at our doorstep, and many are wondering whether the world has the supply to fill its demand.
Can we supply demand
There is no doubt that there will be a massive demand, but the major question that many miners need to be asking is, can we keep up with this need?
Apparently we can, but the industry needs to start exploring.
At his recent presentation, BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie explained that in 1900 the world's copper reserves sat at only 25 million tonnes, and today they are more than 500 million tonnes.
Yet this is a double edged sword.
While the tonnage has increased dramatically, the grades have actually slumped, making it a case of quantity over quality.
While average industry copper grade percentages remained fairly consist in process feed from 1980 to 1998, they have been on a sharp downward slope that looks to get only worse.
High grades, high quantity mines such as Escondida, Grasberg, Bingham, Olympic Dam, Prominent Hill, Northpakes, Cadia or Ernest Henry are unlikely to be on the cards again.
"Due to these declining grades the average run of mine (ROM) grades for copper have actually fallen by three quarters to less than one per cent, yet at the same time annual supply increased from under one million tonnes to more than 16 million tonnes," Mackenzie said.
According to a Wood Mackenzie report from 2012 "copper grades have declined at an average rate of 2.8 per cent per annum over the last decade".
It went on to state that at current production rates the quality will continue to decline due to the depletion of existing resources and these lower grade ores.
There needs to be a massive shift in the way that these lower grades are processed, in particular more energy efficient methods.
Some newer operations are also using heap leaching and electrowinning methods to produce copper in cathode form, according to IBISWorld.
Communition, which is already being put in place at a number of mines globally and Newcrest's Cadia East extension, is one way that these lower grade ores can be more productive with less costs.
It only becomes more difficult from an Australian perspective as we begin to outsource our copper smelting activities to China, or close what are considered unproductive mines - such as in the case of Aditya Birla's Mt Gordon mine.
In 2011 Xstrata, now GlencoreXstrata, announced it was planning to phase out copper smelting and refining operations in Townsville by the end of 2016.
Instead it would focus on copper concentrate, and ship it overseas for processing.
This is because China still remains the lowest cost region for smelting, even if it does continue to rely on approximately three million tonnes of copper cathode.
This leaves Australia in a potentially precarious position if more copper deposits aren't found.
Even so, miners are still increasing output and in turn costs.
The price of the future
Industry performance in Australia, according to IBISWorld, is expected to expand by an annualised rate of 7.5 per cent over the next five years.
In the 2016/17 period alone industry revenues are forecast to total $10.2 billion.
As it is a much more mature industry compared to others such as rare earth or uranium mining it can be expected that revenues will grow at the same pace as the economy, while there is likely to be more mergers and acquisitions in the offing as businesses seek to rationalise their operations, such as combining tenements into large, single operations instead of multiple small low grade mines with the costs spread out amongst a number of companies.
In the case of Australia around two thirds of all copper mined is exported (as of 2011/12), and the $7.1 billion it generated over that period played a significant part of the nation's GDP.
But what can not be forgotten is that there are only a handful of copper miners in the country and the majority of this figure is generated by only four players - GlencoreXstrata (which generates nearly one third of all Australian copper output), BHP Billiton, OZ Minerals, and Newcrest.
In terms of costs, most of the revenues generated by copper miners goes straight back into wages, and even as mines attempt to fight the legacy wage costs that the mining boom left it, this will remain a major drain on mining companies.
Depreciation costs are also a significant factor in copper mining.
Copper faces a greater hurdle than some other metals as it is extremely capital intensive.
Peaking too soon?
With the spike in tonnages and copper mined coupled with these declining grades, many are left wondering whether there will be enough quality copper left in the ground.
As Wood Mackenzie points out: "New discoveries have not been able to reverse the long term trend [of decline]".
This, coupled with BHP's Andrew Mackenzie's comments on grades, projects a bleak future.
And while there is likely to be a short term spike as long awaited projects come online, in the longer term the forecast resource depletion means that a new, an currently unknown supply is needed.
However some are saying existing copper resources can sustain increasing global demand for at least another century.
The finding, emerging out of Monash University, means social and environmental concerns could be the biggest restrictions on future copper production.
"Workers' rights, mining impacts on cultural lands, issues of benefit sharing and the potential for environmental degradation are already affecting the viability of copper production and will increasingly come into play," Monash researcher Dr. Gavin Mudd said.
Yet contrary to predictions, which estimated that copper supplies would run out in about 30 years and painted a dire picture for the support of economic development, the new research has revealed technological advancements means there are plenty of viable resources remaining.
"Although our estimates are much larger than any previously available, they're a minimum. In fact, figures for resources at some mining projects have already doubled or more since we completed the database," Monash researcher Dr Simon Jowitt said.
Jowitt expects the database to change the sector's understanding of copper availability and will likely improve industry practice with respect to mineral resource reporting and exploration.
Mudd said the sizeable volumes of available copper means the mining picture is far more complex than merely stating there are 'x' years of supply left.
The researchers are now attempting to model the life cycles and greenhouse gas impacts of potential copper production, giving a better assessment of the future environmental impacts of copper mining.
"Pressingly, we need to acknowledge that with existing copper resources we're not just going to be dealing with the production of a few million tonnes of tailings from mining a century ago; we are now dealing with a few billion tonnes or tens of billions of tonnes of mine waste produced during modern mining," Mudd said.
The future: Going underground?
This greater drive for more copper will eventually mean the end of the open cut mine.
Already in Australia more than 90 per cent of copper mining is carried out underground, with only about seven per cent open pit, however globally this ratio is not the average.
Due to declining grades and the increasing costs associated with open pit mining, many mines are going underground to unlock the high grade ores available below the pit, with the costs associated with trucks and haulage.
In Australia we are already seeing Ernest Henry mine move from an open pit operation to an underground mine - breathing an additional 12 years into it, while in Chile the world famous Chiquicamata mine, which has been operating as an open pit for around 500 years, is also moving underground.
According to Coldeco, which operates the mine, Chuquicamata still has the ability to produce around 308 000 tonnes of copper annually.
It has already started digging more than 1000 kilometres, sinking US $3.8 billion into the development.
The mine will also replace its trucks with an in-pit crushing and conveying system.
In both cases this decision was made as an alternative to shutting the mine.
The massive Freeport McMoRan Grasberg mine in Indonesia is heading down the same route, looking to move underground and potentially add another 50 years on to its operation life.
But even with these actions, the future of copper will remain placed on its traditional location - South America.
To put it in perspective, Chile alone produces around a third of the world's copper.
With global base supplies predicted to sharply decline from 2015 onwards, the only region that has invested significantly into the future of its copper production is South and Latin America.
Its mined copper supply is forecast to actually increase from current levels of about 6000 kilotonnes to around 16 000 kilotonnes, compared to Australasia's 9000KT forecasts.
As Australian opportunities dry up, and Indian and Chinese demand unlikely to be sated, it may pay off for those experienced in the metal to make a cross Pacific voyage.
Increased long term demand for copper means the metal will have a bright future, although short term volatility will continue.
However if miners are not prepared now for this increased demand, and begin to put a focus on exploration and greenfield plays, they may miss out on what is likely to be the next significant play as mining moves out of its current trough onto the next cycle peak.
Only time will tell.