Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?



A silly idea that seems to be coming straight from a science fiction story of the 1950s. Mining the asteroids wouldn't just be outrageously expensive; the problem is that there is nothing to mine there. Yet, some people seem to take the idea seriously



It seems that, when we are in trouble, we tend to revert to our childhood memories, seen as happy times that, somehow, could return. That may explain why President Trump is dreaming of an impossible return to coal. He may see the idea through his memories of childhood as a time of happy miners and prosperous families.

Some others, instead, may revert to memories influenced by the science fiction of the 1950s, when the idea of "mining the asteroids" was commonplace. Jerry Pournelle wrote a delightful essay on this genre in 1980 under the title "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships". You may also remember the 1981 movie "Outland" starring Sean Connery and taking place in a mine on the moon of Jupiter, Io.

Nice memories, yes, could we ever mine space bodies for real? Well, the science fiction of the 1950s described many innovations that never appeared in the real world and most likely never will. Some because they are too expensive (flying cars) and some because they are contrary to the laws of physics (anti-gravity). Mining the asteroids falls straight into the "impossible" category for two reasons: the first is that it is too expensive and the second that it goes against the laws of geology (if not of physics). It wouldn't be physically impossible to mine the asteroids but there is nothing to mine there.

Let me explain: we can extract minerals on Earth because of the "energy credit" that comes from geological or biological processes (and often both) which have concentrated specific elements in some special regions of the crust. We call these regions "deposits" and we use the term "ores" for those deposits which are concentrated and pure enough that they can generate an economic profit from mining. Only ores are a useful source of minerals. Mining from the undifferentiated crust is simply unthinkable because of the enormous energy it would require (see my book "Extracted").

And there lies the snag with asteroids. The physical processes that created ores on our planet can take place only on planets which are both geologically and biologically active. As far as we know, asteroids never were. So, there are no ores on asteroids; nor there are on the moon or other "dead" space bodies. It is not impossible that there could be ores on Mars, which may have been geo-biologically active in a remote past, or perhaps on the moons of Jupiter, maybe geologically active today. But, for what we know, the best place in the solar system where to find ores is our planet, the good, old Earth (and, incidentally, as science fiction goes, the 2011 movie "Cowboys and Aliens" got the geology of the story perfectly right: the aliens come to Earth for its mineral resources). 

So, no ores, no mining. And no ores on asteroids means no mining on asteroids (*). Of course, many asteroids are mainly iron, but it makes no sense to go there to mine iron if you consider that there is plenty of iron on Earth and you think of the costs involved with the idea of mining space bodies. It is an idea that just makes no sense.

Yet, we are seeing a spate of news that we could take as if someone really wanted to mine the asteroids. Possibly the most idiotic one appeared on "Futurism.com" with the title mentioning an asteroid "worth 10,000 trillion dollars". It seems that the author simply multiplied the mass of the asteroid, supposed to be all iron, by the current cost of iron per kg, arriving at such a meaningless number.

Other people seem to be peddling space mining and they may ask you money to finance their ideas on the basis of cute drawings which, indeed, remind the fictional spaceships of the 1950s. Others, including the Luxembourg government, seem to be willing to do exactly that: spend money on the idea of mining space, really!  (at least, despite their attempt of selecting the worst possible ideas they couldn't imagine, they don't seem to be planning to invade Iraq).

Some people who should know better seem to have lost track a little of what they are saying. So, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet is reported to have declared that "Asteroids are full of pure and precious metals, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, etc, in quantities ten to a hundred times larger than what we can find in terrestrial mines." (let's just say that we can't pretend that astrophysicists know something of geology).  The idea seems to be diffusing and I reported in a previous post how an acquaintance of mine reacted to my statements that we had resource problems with "but we shall colonize other planets!"

So, what to say? Just that when desperation sets in, idiocy often follows.




(*) commenter Ned noted that some meteorites have a platinum concentration higher than that of terrestrial ores. So, there may be an exception to the rule. Whether these asteroids could be actually mined, it is another question. 


38 comments:

  1. But if an asteroid belt is made up of the remnants of a planet, it is a least statistically conceivable that some asteroids might be equivalent to "deposits". Or not?

    (I am not arguing re. the possibility of mining, rather just of composition of asteroids)

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    1. Well, for what we know the asteroids never were a planet. They just formed as they are. Even assuming that such a planet ever existed, it should have had similar characteristics as the Earth, that is active volcanoes, liquid water, a continental crust, and more. Unlikely, to say the least.

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    2. Thanks. I am not one of those cornucopians, but I vividly remember being raised on a diet of sci-fi novels where it was a given that asteroids were obviously meant to be mined, and it never crossed my mind to question this. Reading your post I was suddenly struck by it and by the (obvious) logic behind it. It was surprising. One more myth of my childhood shattered!! :-)

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    3. Geology is a fascinating field, indeed! It is just unforutnate that it doesn't support what seemed obvious in science fiction novels of the 1950s

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  2. The number of atheists in the world is much less than what is commonly admitted, as many people are involved in this kind of technological religion.

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  3. Some acknowledge this. And just state that the only things you can get from asteroids of iron and chondritic varieties - iron and water - are not meant for us, but for our children Among The Stars.

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    1. Exactly this. The Elon Musks of the world want to make spaceships. This is not to bring resources to poverty stricken humans stuck on earth. I am sure the 10 trillion dollar figure includes the cost of launching all that iron into orbit from earth.

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  4. I have a much better propostion. We should just grow the Earth. I mean can computing capability double in 18 month it couldn't be that hard to expand the Earth, say to the double diameter in fifty years. Double diamter means eight times more volume (if remember my school physics correctly) and I think the atmosphere will also expand to the same extent. Voilá, we solve both the resource crisis and the climate crisis.

    It is all so simple. Unless you are a technofobic primitivist.

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    1. Gunner must be Trumps new science advisor!

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  5. Your hand waving in the opposite direction. We don't know what the exact composition of the meteors would be.

    We do know that some of them have platinum within their composition. There is a possibility that you could find an enormous amount of platinum on a meteor. Enough to tank the price of the platinum down here on earth.

    Can you find the meteors with the platinum? Are they (it) close enough that the recent orbital space commercial advances can get to it at an accessible cost? Don't know.

    But you can't say that meteors don't have accessible minerals because they don't have the same geological processes as earth. It simply means that what you would find and how you would find it, would be radically different.

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    1. We know. We have plenty of meteorites to examine, here on earth. In some of them, the concentration of platinum, gold, or other precious metal is larger than in the earth's crust. Not for nothing, the famed "iridium layer" that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs was attributed to an asteroid impacting on the earth. That doesn't mean iridium (or others) can be mined. Their concentration remains extremely low. For instance, the highest gold concentration ever observed in meteorites is close to that of the lowest grade gold ores you can find here. So, why mine asteroids, with all the expenses involved, when you can mine the same concentration ores here?

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    2. BTW, you can find some data on the abundance of gold in meteorites here: https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1968/0603/report.pdf

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  6. Stellar nucleosynthesis is the source of all elements. In our sun Hydrogen is converted to Helium by a fusion reaction. In larger stars, this fusion reaction directly creates all the elements up to and including Iron (periodic table #26). All others are formed in supernova which simultaneously sends them careening out in to the cosmos as dust to be accreted in to planets and asteroids. So, mining asteriods is a perfectly reasonable proposition.

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    1. This falls in the category that I call "Tiffany fallacy". What counts is not the abundance, but the concentration. http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2016/11/tiffanys-fallacy-mineral-pie-is.html

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    2. Great article and you hit the nail on the head in the title when you said "... and most of what's left is in the sky". We have picked Earth's low hanging fruit and if we want or need more minerals it is the only place left - in the sky.

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    3. And I am sure you understand that "a pie in the sky" is a metaphor for something unattainable.

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  7. What's worse about the idea is that it fails even if it works. Assume you found an asteroid made of a valuable pure element (wild fantasy) and the extraction cost was low (also wild fantasy) and there was a massive amount of it. How much is it worth when you flood the market on Earth with a previously rare metal? Talk about a slump in commodities...

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  8. What about tritium on the moon? When the then Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government Sir David King, gave an enthisiastic plug for nuclear fusion back in 2007, (British Parliamentary Committee proceedings), mining-the-moon enthusiasts were keen to point out that 'the world' could get the needed increase in supply of tritium from the moon. (I am not sure that Sir David ever endorsed the 'moon strategy'.) I have just read some of this stuff. Just 10 years and it looks amazingly dated!

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    1. Yes, actually you mean He(3) rather than tritium, but it is the same idea. I am surprised that Dave King - who is a smart person - supported this weird idea (but I hope you don't mean he supported He(3) mining). Why people should be so enthusiastic about spending a lot of money to bring to earth something that should fuel a technology that doesn't exist and we don't know if it will ever exist? It beats me.....

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    2. Thank you for the correction, Ugo. I wish I had done better homework!
      There is enough fact-free talk on the internet without my adding to it. Sir David, as Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, was a valuable advocate for international action to reduce climate change. He also advocated an international research program on nuclear fusion, ITER. He judged a better than 50% probability of success over 35 years. It seems that the ITER machine currently under construction does not propose use of He(3)as fuel for fusion. British involvement in the project is presumabaly under question as we withdraw from the EU.

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    3. More to the point if you assume total capture of all the energy of all the helium-3 that has been blasted into the surface moonrock, you get an energy density of about a quarter that of lignite. On another planet. Before processing and extraction and infrastructure and transport costs. That's just not useful.

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  9. From what I understand, ore veins don't really need biological impetus (or at least some kinds-looking at you, uranium deposits!). They occur because of hydraulic flow into planes of weakness. But then again, that's the thing; meteor have little to no water, and most certainly not enough to make this happen. Thereby, just as you said, the valuable minerals would be evenly distributed throughout the asteroid mass, and you would have to waste ridiculous amounts of resources just to get a little bit of the valuable minerals.

    I guess if I'm correct, (big if), then Mars may have some mineral veins since it seems fairly likely there's water within its crust. Still, mining from Mars would be exceedingly expensive. You would need to make a whole industry on just producing the machines geared to launching the minerals out of Mars' orbit!

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    1. Correct. Ore formation often depends on hydraulic flows and high temperatures. Some biological processes may help, though. On Mars, yes, there could be ores.

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    2. Biological could be involved in Earth, but it's not a must. Platinum metal ores are mainly remanents of late bombardment on Earth from metallic group asteroids, so it seems that mining theory is correct.

      The idea because there is more metals on space is a bad explanation. Of course, most metal on the Solar System is in the core of the Sun, later the biggest planets, including Earth as the biggest terrestrial.

      All this metals are unexploitable, because they exists where pressure and temperature make impossible to reach.
      We can only mine some ores in the crust where the pressure, abundance and other parameters allow it.

      That's the reason because there is a lot more accesible metal on space than on Earth. Not because it's more abundant. It is because little gravity means that huge tunnels and spread platinum metal are possible.

      Of course, this is the good part. The bad part it is that they are in space. In far orbits (even near Earth orbits are "far" in a term of time and energy), in a harzard enviroment that costs A LOT to reach.

      The space barrier could be impossible to jump, or not. It is matter of numbers, mostly unknown. But there is no physical flaws around space mining. Only perhaps that we can not insert enough to make space infrastructure profitable.

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    3. Excuse me Oatleg, but you are only in part correct. It is true that if there is platinum in the earth's crust it is because it came from meteoric bombardment. But platinum ORES are not formed in this way. They are the result of magmatic enrichment processes. So, it is the same problem: you need a geologically active system that moves magmas around. And asteroids are geologically dead. They contain platinum but not platinum ores.

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    4. Perhaps there is some translation problem here, but I understand that if you can exploit a place to extract a metal, It is technically a ore.
      It could be different compounts and organization, but if it is exploitable, I think we can call it a ore.

      In any case, it's a semantic unimportant debate. The thing here is that some asteroids has high concentration and ... solving the remaining problems of space and so on... it allow to recover it.

      I think that concentration of metals on some metallic asteroids are even greater than today Earth ores. Of course, it has the problem of how to extract them.

      Space has great disadvantages but some advantages too. Solar energy is 24h there so energy is abundant and free. The lack of gravity, although is a disadvantage in respect to rebuild all technology, plus the fixation problem, it allow huge tunnels inside an asteroid.

      So It is no so trivial to know if it is possible to exploit this asteroids.

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    5. Well, we call "ores" the deposits which are exploitable. In order to be exploitable, they have to be concentrated over a minimum level. And to reach these concentrations, you need geological processes that - for all we know - never took place on asteroids. Maybe there are exceptions for very rare metals, but only in some very special cases and very special asteroids

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  10. The idea could be unfeasible, but it is not silly.
    A Quadrillion value is not inmediate turn into reality. The value depends on demand, and so high values devaluate all the metal. And it can not be so big. There is no enough demand for this now.
    But if you dilate the return in a lot of time, even some devaluation is unavoidable, the net value could reach this level.

    I guess that move so heavy asteroid is not good for testing. Perhaps they could start with a small one.

    But you must understand that the return of weight is not proportional to cost, so the cost could go down and down with the time.
    Once you have infrastructure in the asteroid and you gain the capability to make things there, including making return capsules, the weight to "up" there would be incredible small in comparison with the weight of returned mass.
    You send excabators and manufactures. It returns very basic capsules with a lot of worthly metals.
    The ratio is not fixed. In theory, the infrastructure could reach a total automated level (so you don't need to send nothing out of the planet) so the return would be as worthly as the hole asteroid.

    In practice, complex manufactures like electronics it will require be built on Earth for very long time, and for first missions, mostly all infrastructure should be sent from Earth what makes the enterprise unprofitable for sure.
    But as a concept, it could be very profitable in the future. So, the actual concepts are more to study the spending gap to turn into a profitable industry. If the spending gap is too big, it will never be exploited, at least from a market point of view.

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  11. This seems to disagree with the original post:

    "Asteroid composition varies widely, from volatile-rich bodies to metallic bodies with high concentrations of rare metals such as gold, silver, and platinum in addition to more common elements such as iron and nickel. Platinum-rich asteroids may contain grades of up to 100 grams per ton, 10-20 times higher than open pit platinum mines in South Africa (Sonter, 2006)."

    http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/asteroids.html

    Likewise, this also suggests that there are some asteroids whose concentrations of platinum-group metals matches "good terrestrial ore" though these are probably only a small fraction of near-earth objects (50% of all Type IIIAB asteroids, or 1 in 2000 NEOs):

    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1312/1312.4450.pdf

    Disclaimer: I have no particular expertise on this topic.

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    1. I think you are right. It MIGHT be possible to exploit asteroids for platinum metals. There are always exceptions to rules! (I added a small change to the post)

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  12. I think the main idea is to mine asteroids for water to refuel satellites in orbit; there may be a market for such things, especially for big satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

    People like to dream of stark trek like ships, and huge industrial mining with colonies and space miners just coming out of thin air, but it a slow and iterative process that requires time, effort, and resources. One step at the time, landing a kerosene rocket in a cost effective way is already a big step. It might all fail? sure, but it's not like humanity has nothing else to do except continuing a cycle of "useless" lives till it's extinction.

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    1. That is other market, and probably the most short term mining (if it works at all). It's comparison of fuel made of space ice processed vs fuel put on orbit from Earth.
      If the machinery to move, extract, purify and turn into fuel has less mass than than fuel created, then it is a saving.

      But because that is a space only market (space consumption) it has no importance related with metal exhaustion on Earth.

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    2. Point is that the ice -> fuel market is a stepping stone, in creates a space economy: command centers, more launches (economies of scale), puts hardware in LEO, and GEO (that also are usefull for earth uses, for example most companies are creating satellites capable of probing asteroids, but can be also used to collect data on earth to sell) etc etc, you start small and then you see where to go from there.

      it's not like they are investing billions of cash to try and catch a gold mine, at least the private sector, the state run agencies receive money mainly as wellfare and to make some big corporations happy, like ULA, and friends.

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  13. I am always amused when I read the comments on topics like this, at the lack of questioning of the original premise. NASA is an Agency that one assumes would have all the relative pros and come at its fingertips and NASA has come down on the side of its a goer. Not one person has asked why is this so. Science is a God too many and NASA is surely one of the high churches, the psychological temerity of questioning its authority can appear to many to be dangerous, better to accept and not make waves. The reality is that Big Science is inextricably linked to capitalism and many of these space based ventures are just that,scams. as my mother was fond of saying a fool and his money are soon parted

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  14. if you mine an asteroid, presumably it would be for metal ores

    without application of heat, metals are of no use to humankind, so miners are faced with
    a---getting the metals back to earth

    and b smelting them into something we can use in a commercial sense

    ie---buying/selling products made with those ores.

    exactly what would that be?---steel body panels made from asteroid iron?

    But lets not be quite so silly---a solid gold asteroid maybe? A million tons of gold---hooray---we will all be zillionaires!!!
    er no we wont, because gold is valued only by its relative rarity---the world has about 130000 tons of the stuff

    Bring back 1m tons, and the world gold market is wiped out

    Rare earths then? Rare earths (in this context) are used in conjunction with power generation equipment---so no matter how much rare earth is mined, you still have to build machinery in which to use it.

    I think we can safely assume that asteroids will not contain fossil fuels

    The fact remains than we cannot manufacture anything without heat input of some kind

    Ive left the best till last---an asteroid mining complex is as yet beyond our technical capability. We as yet have to invent the necessary technology........It is theoretically possible, but we need industrial complexity on a colossal scale to do it.

    We are already running on global energy deficit, so where is the industry going to come from to provide the physical means to do the mining?

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  15. I agree that mining asteroid is beyond our current technical capacity. But it's within what we can work out with respect to what we would need, even the economics.

    http://htyp.org/Mining_Asteroids

    Is something I wrote on the subject a few years ago.

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  16. I suggest readers to find (or buy from Amazon, it was cheap) 2DVD set, 8 part BBC series "Earth Story" by Aubrey Manning. It's fascinating how unique position our planet has among other celestial bodies. Nothing can replace it.

    Great quality of this series is how it combines research in geology and biology. The author is biologist.

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  17. All elements are created in stars and there's nothing special about Earth to make it sole deposit. Technology to mine in space is conceivable and slowly (or rather very fast) emerging. So I view this post (whose author I highly respect, which is why I follow this blog) as an instance of what Arthur Clarke said about when distinguished scientists say that something is probably impossible that they're probably wrong.
    Just my opinion. Goran

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017