In our technology-based society, precious metals and rare earths are seeing increasing use in industrial purposes. Gold, one of the most well-known precious metals, is a vital part of modern technology. It also has medical and clean technology applications. With about $0.50 in gold in each cellphone sold, the amount of gold used each year is surprising.
And that’s just gold. We also use platinum, iridium, and a host of other rare earths. After all, rare earths are called rare for a reason – they’re not so easy to find. But we do use them for a lot of different things.
While we might not be depleting the world supply of these minerals before the next Superbowl, they will get pricier as they become harder to find and mine. We’re not giving up on using technology anytime soon, so there is a risk that we will eventually deplete our supply of these critical elements.
A white paper from the American Chemical Society notes:
It must be stressed that critical element depletion has potential consequences more serious than the already serious problems of peak oil and global warming.”
Whether we run out of the precious minerals and rare earths we need, or they just become too expensive, the results are equally problematic. For a solution, some people are looking to the skies.
The asteroid gold rush
Asteroid mining has been an idea long loved by writers and space dreamers alike. In space, there are no natural habitats to dig up, or pollution worries from mining. This concept might resemble science fiction, but in an era where a billionaire like Elon Musk is planning to have humans on Mars in six years, the idea might be closer than we think.
The technical hurdles are daunting, but that hasn’t stopped a number of companies from forming and announcing their intentions.
- Planetary Resources has been working on instruments to determine the composition of asteroids as a first step to mining them.
- Deep Space Industries is crowdfunding their own space mining efforts.
- Kepler Energy & Space Engineering LLC is looking to fund their own ambitious asteroid mining plans.
- Even NASA is dipping their toe in the world of asteroid mining with the Robotic Asteroid Prospector project.
These companies have different strategies for getting the goods, but they do seem to think that asteroid mining could be a reality by 2025. In some ways, precious metals are only a gateway for us. Finding water and other resources in space could provide a far bigger long-term payoff for the human race as it makes expanding our presence off of earth much easier.
If you think this sounds like someone took the movie Armageddon and turned it into a business plan, you are not alone.
How rich are your asteroids?
One of the biggest reasons asteroid mining seems ludicrous is the obvious cost of finding the minerals, extracting them, and then making it back to earth with the payload. The cost of the Curiosity rover on Mars is measured in the billions, and the only thing that Rover sends back is information and pictures. The next mission to Mars is expected to cost over $2 billion as well. The first mining mission will undoubtedly be at least that expensive, if not more.
With great risk comes the opportunity for great reward. While we haven’t quite figured out the mining of asteroids yet we have been getting better at figuring out their composition, and the results are very exciting. For example, there is an asteroid named 2011 UW158 that passed near Earth on July 19, 2015 that was believed to contain over $5 trillion in platinum alone.
Yes, we said Trillion with a T.
All of the sudden, the economics of asteroid mining make a bit more sense. There’s even a website named Asterank that lists the estimated value of known asteroids and the projected costs of mining them.
So do we send Bruce Willis into space or not?
This all seems far-fetched, but the future always looks impossible to those who lack the vision and drive. Several “ultra-high net worth” individuals seem to be interested in the potential profits of asteroid mining, such as the billionaire founders of Google and James Cameron.
As Earth’s population continues to grow, we put an increasing demand on natural resources. The economics of space mining will only grow more tempting, and although we might not be launching Bruce Willis into space to deal with any real asteroids quite yet, the space race is on to see who can find the next paydirt.