Mining at 20,000 leagues and in the Final Frontier

We look at a forecast of mineral demand driven by green and clean tech, then two deep sea mining companies and two space mining companies seeking to satisfy that demand.

Green and Clean Energy Demands

In the future there will be more people and each and every person will use more resources. This assumption has always been unspoken in every technology discussion, but now a team at the University of Delaware has actually examined this assumption. Their surprising conclusion is that it’s true, especially if green and clean technologies find widespread adoption.

In a paper published in Nature (paywall for full-text, but see the thorough review here), Saleem Ali and others note that a green and clean future will require great increases in the production of rare and common metals. Whether it’s battery powered cars (lithium), high-efficiency solar panels (indium and tellurium silicon dopants), wind turbines (dysprosium and neodymium magnets), intelligent machines (germanium and gallium in chips), fiber optic data connections (erbium), or the steel and wiring (iron and copper) to support, house, power and connect all these devices, a green and clean future will replace oceans of hydrocarbons with mountains of metal.

Where will all these raw materials come from? What if scarcity leads to geopolitical fights? Ali and his collaborators seek to set up a global framework to safeguard sources of the critical and chemically un-substitutable components of our modern world. There are similar agreements covering the management of fisheries, endangered species, migratory birds and acid rain; why not an agreement for exceedingly rare elements?

In the meantime, four companies are seeking to save the world by dramatically increasing our mineral stocks, two under the sea and two in space.

Under the Sea

You may have heard that we know more about the surface of Mars than we know about the 70% of Earth’s surface which lies under the sea. This is exactly true. The crashed ExoMars probe was quickly found after a few days while the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 was recently called off after 3 years of futile efforts. The difference was that the ExoMars probe crashed on Mars 110 million miles away while MH370 was suspected to have crashed in water 15,000 feet deep.

In view of this staggering ignorance of the sea bed, it’s no surprise that no one knows what mineral treasures lie under the sea, only that they vastly exceed all finds on land.

This ignorance has proved useful in the past, specifically when the Glomar Explorer was built in 1973 to mine manganese nodules from the sea floor. Mining however, was a CIA cover story, and the ship was actually built to lower a claw down 3 miles to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine lost in 1968.

So one could forgive thinking that deep sea mining is not serious. But two companies have raised capital, prospected, and are readying their efforts to actually mine the sea floor.

Nautilus Minerals – News just broke that in early 2019 (awesome pictures) Nautilus will lower their already built, specially designed, tele-operated excavators a mile down into the sea off New Guinea. To be fair, news broke back in 2015 that in 2018 they would begin operations, but schedules slip. If you want a piece of the action Nautilus is publicly traded and has raised a few hundred million dollars of investment, so they are serious about making undersea mining a reality. Welcome to the future, we are living it right now!

Neptune Minerals – A second company about which less is known, has prospected and secured several tenements in the western Pacific. There is no information yet about actual mining equipment and infrastructure, but if Nautilus succeeds Neptune will not be far behind.

A Follow Up (July 14th, 2017) – Smithsonian Magazine covers the Seabed 2030 project, framing the project to map the entire 139.7 million square miles of sea-floor as a dangerous first step towards deep-sea mining. Of note, the article states that a 1982 amendment to the international law-of-the-sea requires revenue from deep-sea mining to be shared with the international community. It’s this requirement, rather than any technological difficulties, that best explains why all sea mining to date occurs in shallow water (or in the western Pacific cases detailed above, close to shore). Because each country gets sole control of the sea out to 12 miles (or 200 depending), only one country can demand a cut instead of each and every country all over the world.

Far into Space

The numbers are astronomical. There are at least 3 million asteroids larger than 500 meters in diameter (and more likely around 100 million). Of those, a very small percentage (~0.01%) are basically pure platinum, a precious metal worth more than gold. This means there are about 300 chunks of platinum at least 500 meters in diameter just sitting around unclaimed. If you were curious, the market value of that much platinum would be $3 trillion. Not million, not billion, but trillion dollars. As in, just one of those rocks would be the 5th largest economy by GDP, after Germany but before the UK. Granted the cost of platinum would surely plummet when so much supply is brought to market.

But that’s not where the real money is. Of the millions of large asteroids many (~10%) have a high water composition. As this graphic shows, at the cost of $20,000 per liter to send water to the International Space Station for drinking, a 500 meter asteroid would be worth $5 trillion (3rd largest economy in the world, after China, but before Japan). Unlike the collapse in price for platinum, if more water was available in space the price would probably increase (at least initially). The reason is that water has many uses. Aside from drinking, water can be turned into hydrogen and oxygen, which are the most basic of rocket fuels, and the oxygen can be used for breathing. A torrent of water available in space would be cause a torrent of space activity, literally priming the pump for harvesting an even greater supply of water.

With these numbers in mind, it should be clear that no matter how great the cost, any amount of money is a worthwhile investment in space mining. And now, after the US recognized private ownership of asteroids in late 2015, two companies have indeed started investing heavily:

Planetary Resources – Counting both Larry Page and Richard Branson as investors, the company is currently boot strapping its way towards asteroid mining with its Ceres project. Basically, take a nice digital camera, add solar panels for power, add a gyroscope (to allow pointing in any direction), and add a radio to transmit images back, and you have a budget spy satellite! Observing the earth constantly, everywhere, in real-time will build the required expertise for designing operating future asteroid mining robots. It will also pay the bills for the foreseeable future.

Deep Space Industries – The company is going directly into, well, deep space. They are focused on prospecting asteroids and directly testing mining technologies. They have teamed up with the government of Luxembourg to fund technology development.

Mining Drones have a Bright Future

What is amazing is that in both environments and in all four of these companies, the common thread is network-controlled devices carrying out the entirety of a mining operation. A critical component of these operations will be visual observations, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is Minex’s strong suite.

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