This year has certainly been all about microbes, and a new paper keeps this trend going — but not how you’d expect.
Microbes can help extract economically-important materials from rocks in zero-gravity, a new paper reports. The findings showcase the potential of microscopic life in such applications even in space. They also point to the possibility of ‘biomining’ being used as a critical transition step before settling another planet.
The smallest miners
Rare earth elements are, as their name suggests, quite rare. But they’re also critical for high-tech applications due to their often-unique physical and chemical properties. Due to their rarity, such elements are very challenging and expensive to mine and refine, and we’re limited in how much we can produce. Demand for such materials will soon outstrip supply. One solution, however, may lie just above the skies.
Having the ability to identify and isolate rare earth elements will be extremely important for humanity as we seek to expand to other worlds — bonus points if we can do it easily and cheaply. Microbes are already used in this role on Earth, and the new study reveals that they can work just as well in low- or zero-gravity conditions.
The team worked with three species of bacteria (Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis, and Cupriavidus metallidurans) in microgravity conditions that simulated the environment aboard the ISS or that on Mars. They measured how efficiently these could leech 14 rare earth elements from basalt rocks, which are very similar to those on the surface of the Moon and Mars. Trials on Earth were carried out in parallel with these experiments to give the team a control group in normal gravity conditions.
All in all, S. desiccabilis successfully extracted the elements from rocks in all three gravity conditions. It was quite effective across all conditions and showed the highest extraction efficiency (around 70%) of all the bacteria tested with the elements Cerium and Neodymium. The other two species were either less effective in low gravity conditions (compared to normal gravity), or were completely unable to perform the task.
The findings suggest that not all the species we use for mining here on Earth would function well, or at all, in other gravity conditions. However, they also clearly show that some of these species would. Identifying which ones these are will be a species-by-species process, but it would definitely pay off in the long term.
That being said, the idea of carrying microorganisms from Earth to another planet is quite a philosophical can of worms. While it may definitely help us extract the things we need from deposits far away, such a step risks fundamentally altering (or replacing) a celestial body’s biosphere.
The paper “Space station biomining experiment demonstrates rare earth element extraction in microgravity and Mars gravity” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.
Zimbabwe has officially banned mining in all its national parks, responding to protests after allowing Chinese companies to look for coal in one of the world’s most important elephant reserves. The permits had been allegedly awarded without a previous environmental assessment report.
The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association had filed an urgent request at Harare High Court, claiming mining inside the Hwange National Park would pose severe risks to the biodiversity in the area. Despite their win, they will continue with their claim so to have a legal reassurance in case the government backtracks in the future with their decision.
Hwange is Zimbabwe’s biggest national park. It’s home to the country’s biggest elephant herd, more than 40,000, as well as large pride of lions and buffalo, all popular with tourists. The last black rhino population also lives there, as many endangered species, which environmental organizations argue would be threatened by extractive activities.
The government had given permission to the mining companies Zhongxin Coal Mining Group and Afrochine Smelting to start impact assessments for drilling, geological surveys and road building at two proposed sites inside the Hwange park. Moving ahead with the project would shrink and disturb the habitat of many species and alter safari tourism, a source of income for local people, organizations have argued.
“This is one of the greatest game parks in the world and the mines would be in one of the most pristine areas of the park. The last black rhino population in Hwange Park lives there, so do 10,000 elephants and 3,000 buffalo,” Trevor Lane, who works for the Bhejane Trust in Hwange, told The Guardian. “If it goes ahead it will be an end to the park. It would kill the tourist industry.”
Following the complaints by conservationists, the government first said the companies had been given the mining permits before President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2015, suggesting there wasn’t much that could be done. Nevertheless, the government decided to change its stand and ban mining in all parks with immediate effect, cancelling permits given to companies across the country.
Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa was the one to announce the ban on mining in national parks, which was followed by a ban on most river beds. The decision affects mainly Chinese companies, which had been given mining permits in the country. China is a major investor in Zimbabwe and a close ally of the government, which relied on China in recent years to boost its struggling economy.
“Hwange national park is a unique and important enclave. We don’t think there is any tourist who would visit Zimbabwe to check on production of any mine. Tourists are attracted to wildlife. We hope the government will genuinely stay by its word,” said Simiso Mlevu, a spokeswoman for the Center for Natural Resource Governance, in a statement.
The deep sea, the area of the ocean below 200 meters, could soon become the new frontier of mining activities. Companies and countries are rushing to get the green light to start extracting minerals from cobalt to manganese from the bottom of the sea. ‘Not so fast’, say conservationists.
While they can be found in abundance on land, most mineral deposits are running short as our society is fueling an increasing demand for such resources, especially for green energy technologies and consumer electronics. This has led many to draw their attention to the minerals on the deep sea.
The seafloor contains a wide array of geological resources and supports countless species, many still unknown to science. It is a highly understudied part of the world, hosting an abundance of species uniquely adapted to harsh conditions such as lack of sunlight and high pressure.
This is why conservation and environmental organizations are raising the alarm over the impacts of deep-sea mining, urging caution until the science is more thorough. Meanwhile, companies argue that the risks are low and that there’s no time to waste amid the high demand for minerals. So, what’s the case for deep-sea mining, and what’s the case against it?
What is deep seabed mining?
Deep-sea mining (or deep seabed mining) is, as the name implies, the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the deep seafloor. Generally, this ‘depth’ refers to parts of the ocean over 200 meters deep — an area that covers around 65% of the Earth’s surface.
In addition to rich biodiversity, these areas also include unique geological features such as mountain ranges, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons, vast abyssal plains, the world’s deepest trenches — such as the Mariana Trench, which goes down almost 11,000 meters.
“It is the largest biosphere on the planet. It exchanges biomass, nutrients and other elements with the overlying surface waters, it mixes vertically and horizontally and it comprises arguably more habitats than may be found in terrestrial environments,” said Dr. Cindy Van Dover, a deep-sea biologist at Duke University, for ZME Science.
Much has changed in how scientists regard the deep sea. When Van Dover first started work in this field in the early 1980s, the ‘deep-sea’ meant the area where light stopped coming though, about 500 meters in. While no formal definition is universally accepted, 200 m seems to be regarded as the limit now — the boundary at which photosynthesis is no longer possible, and the temperature drops sharply.
Adjectives often associated with the deep sea before the 1980s include inaccessible, remote, pristine, biological desert, adds Van Dover. These are now obsolete.
“We have access (although that access is costly), the deep-ocean is well connected to coastal and surface waters. Chemicals, wastes, plastics, and climate change are all impacting the deep sea. And we know that the diversity of life in the deep sea is rich, and in some places exuberantly abundant – far from the azoic, desert world it was believed to be in the 1800s and on into the 1900s.”
However, although we’ve learned much about this part of the planet, the vast majority of it remains unexplored and understudied, which is why the topic of industrial activities in these areas tend to touch a nerve.
Should we wait, or start mining as soon as possible?
There are some mining projects in shallow waters around the world, mainly for sand, tin, and diamonds. In the 1960s, Marine Diamond Corp. recovered nearly 1 million carats from the coast of Namibia, but not all investments have been successful — and the process is tedious.
There’s also some deep-sea mining being done in territorial waters of some countries, particularly around hydrothermal vents — fissures on the seafloor where geothermally heated water flows and tends to form rich mineral deposits. Papua New Guinea was the first country to approve a permit for the exploration of minerals in the deep seabed, and the world’s first “large-scale” mining of hydrothermal vents mineral deposits was carried out by Japan in August – September 2017.
But deep-sea mining in international waters that don’t belong to a specific country has still not taken off.
So far, thirty 15-year exploration contracts have been granted to assess the size and extent of three different types of mineral deposits in areas totaling more than 1.3 million square kilometers. But actual mining can’t start until countries agree on an international mining code, now under negotiation.
The task of developing this mining code falls International Seabed Authority (ISA), a rather obscure and autonomous United Nations organization that governs seabed mining from its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. Every year, delegates from all around the world fly to Kingston for one week and discuss the legislation for this trillion-dollar industry just waiting to boom, with little attention from the media and even environmental organizations.
The ISA had set 2020 as the deadline to adopt a “mining code” that would allow companies to obtain minerals from the bottom of the ocean but given the current state of affairs, meeting that deadline seems highly unlikely.
Biologists and conservationists argue that some of the difficulties to getting the code approved lies on the fact that the ISA has dual responsibilities. When it was established by the UN, the ISA was given two mandates: to protect the international seabed from serious harm, and to develop its resources, ensuring that their exploitation benefits humankind — so what do you do when those mandates clash and start pulling in different directions? If anything, the role that ISA seems to play at this time is not to prevent environmental damage from deep-sea mining, but rather to mitigate it.
Writing the regulations at this time could also encourage the industry to start mining long before there is enough information on how operators can avoid causing serious environmental harm. That’s why many are now calling for a moratorium until all the necessary information is collected.
“We need more time to drill down on the details, more time to do science and learn on the deep oceans and more time for the stakeholders to internalize all the questions,” Andrew Friedman, head of Pew’s Seabed Mining Project. “If the activity starts, we want to have a robust regulatory framework in place.”
The idea of heavy scrutiny is shared by Van Dover, though a moratorium might not be the best approach, she notes.
“While I welcome the public debate about a moratorium on deep-sea mining, I don’t know that a moratorium may be the optimal approach. To me, our goal has to be to ensure that environmental regulations, standards, and guidelines are robust before any mining begins, including being robust with regards to enforcement.”
Environmental aspects of mining applications should be scrutinized for compliance and subject to independent review by deep-sea environmental experts, she says. Mining should not be permitted where there is insufficient data to ensure no serious harm is done to the environment. However, since there are huge knowledge gaps in our understanding, that will preclude all mining activities for a while.
“It will require thoughtful, informed input to the development of regulations, standards, and guidelines by Member States of and Observers to the ISA, by deep-sea ecologists, scientists, and environmental experts, and by all other stakeholders to ensure that the environmental regulations are robust,” Van Dover adds.
Who wants to explore the deep sea?
Given the lucrative potential of deep sea mining, several countries and companies have already expressed interest.
All countries have the right and opportunity to mine the deep sea and the eventual royalties obtained from the activity will have to be divided equally among all of them. But as the rules aren’t in place yet countries are only on an exploratory phase in international waters.
A group of corporate enterprises, state-owned companies and several governments have been allocated with contracts to explore the deep sea. Each company has to be sponsored by a country, so they are both responsible for any eventual problems.
The list includes China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the Interoceanmetal Joint Organisation (a consortium of Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation, and Slovakia). Small island states such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Singapore, and Tonga are also part of the list. Given the massive rising demand for precious metals in the world, many are closely following developments in this field.
Make no mistake, though — this isn’t some localized interest by which some countries are looking to supplement their natural resources. This is possibly the nascent moment of the largest mining operation in human history.
What minerals does the industry want?
The most common targets are nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, silver, and gold. The exploration currently under place is focused on three types of mineral deposits: polymetallic nodules (lying on the seafloor), polymetallic sulfides (which form near hydrothermal vents), and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts that cover seamounts.
Once found, such minerals will be used to supplement in-demand electronic products and energy storage such as smartphones, laptops, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. Terrestrial supplies are becoming harder and less profitable to extract while demand for minerals continues to grow. Companies argue that deep-sea mining provides a source of reliable, clean, and ethically sourced minerals.
“We are now at the age of metals. We need a lot of them to move into the fourth industrial revolution, which will be based on renewable energy,” said Dr. Gregory Stone, Chief Ocean Scientist at Deep Green. “We need to get the metals from somewhere and obtaining them from the deep sea is an elegant solution.”
Seabed formations will be scooped, dredged, or severed by gigantic machines weighing more than a blue whale. The deposits would be piped up to a ship through several kilometers of tubing and processed at sea, where waste material would be pumped back into the water.
ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicles) have also progressed greatly in recent years, becoming not only more capable and robust, but also cheaper — promising to usher in a new age of undersea exploration.
What effects could it have on the ocean?
Environmental organizations and researchers claim these activities will affect the seabed, the water column above it, and the surrounding area. The scraping of the ocean floor to extract the nodules could destroy deep-sea habitats of octopuses, sponges and other species.
Mining of the vents, which harbor massive animal communities at densities that make them one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, is likely to stir up sediment that could smother some animals and dramatically affect the habitats of others. Other species adapted to the lack of sunlight and high pressure of deep water, could be affected by the noise and pollution, and the list of potential threats goes far and long.
“Many uncertainties remain as to the impact of this mining but widespread habitat loss will be inevitable, albeit in an environment where the faunas are often sparse,” wrote Van Dover and colleagues in a paper in 2018. “A precautionary approach will be needed with many areas set aside for protection and regional plans put in place before mining begins.”
Environmental organizations are also scrutinizing the climate implications of allowing companies to dig minerals used to make lithium-ion batteries. “Deep-sea mining could even make climate change worse by releasing carbon stored in deep-sea sediments or disrupting the processes which help deliver carbon to those sediments,” Greenpeace argued in a report.
Scientists are also concerned that not enough is known about these species or ecosystems to establish an adequate baseline from which to protect them or monitor the impact of mining. But for the industry, that shouldn’t be the case. DeepGreen said the activity should start as soon as the rules are approved.
“Everybody is in new territory, that’s why this new industry is exciting. Nobody did this type of mining before. ISA will have to get the code ready, and then we’ll do our environmental assessment against that code,” said Dr. Stone. “It will be the least invasive way of getting metals on the planet.”
We once thought the deep sea was uninhabitable but now we know that is not the case. There is an abundance of biodiversity in the deep sea, and the ecological services it provides is invaluable — not only for ocean dwellers, but for humans as well.
In between the fragile ISA mandate, the growing pressure for more mineral resources, and the environmental uncertainty, deep sea mining promises to be a contentious topic for decades to come.
Whether it will bring a revolution for mineral resources or devastate the subsurface environment, the effects will be powerful and long-lasting.
“The deep sea remains a difficult place to study and in my opinion will be impossible to “fix” if we “break” it,” Van Dover concludes.
The ESA just signed a one-year contract with Europe’s largest launch services provider, ArianeGroup, to study the feasibility of mining on the moon. Should everything go according to plan, ESA wants to launch the mission by 2025, the Popular Mechanicsreports.
The mission would focus on the lunar regolith, the dust-like soil covering our moon. It’s not exactly what we’d call ‘soil’ back here — on Earth, soils contain quite a lot of organic matter. Regolith, however, does contain molecular oxygen and water. It’s also quite rich in helium-3 isotopes, which “could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products,” according to the ESA.
[This study is] “an opportunity to recall the ability of Ariane 64 to carry out Moon missions for its institutional customers, with a payload capacity of up to 8.5 metric tons,” says André-Hubert Roussel, CEO of ArianeGroup.
“In this year, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon, ArianeGroup will thus support all current and future European projects, in line with its mission to guarantee independent, sovereign access to space for Europe.”
The mission would launch on an Ariane 64 rocket. The vehicle is still in the works and is a variation of the company’s Ariane 6 rocket with an extra four strap-on boosters. Berlin-based PTScientists, a former Google Lunar XPrize competitor, will also be involved in the study. ArianeGroup will handle the rocket and PTScientists will design and build the lander to actually touch-down on the moon.
“We are very pleased with the confidence placed in us by the European Space Agency,” said Robert Boehme, CEO and founder of PTScientists, in a press statement.
While the mission is being evaluated and the hardware is being set-up, ESA spacewalk instructor Hervé Stevenin and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer are working together with geologists and engineers to simulate a lunar spacewalk in the desolate volcanic area of Lanzarote, Spain as part of Pangaea-X. This is a test campaign that set up by ESA to pool together expertise on space exploration, high-tech survey equipment, and geology meant to train the crewmembers of this future mission.
Spacesuits are bulky, uncomfortable things. They also limit an astronaut’s range of motions by quite a large margin. You can’t kneel down or bend over in a pressurized suit in space, the gloves make it hard to handle anything, arm movement is restricted by the suit’s articulated joints, and the helmet limits the field of view. The astronauts training with Hervé are testing operation concepts and equipment prototypes designed to take into account this limited range of movement they’ll experience in a suit. Their current training will make them feel at ease once they set foot on the moon.
“We do not have a lunar spacesuit for these tests, but after spending many hours training with NASA’s spacesuits we are accustomed to the limitations of mobility. We applied this knowledge – and our body memory – to testing the lunar tools,” says Hervé.
The spacewalkers’ gear was outfitted with video cameras that transmitted live feeds to the scientists. Wide angle videos, 360 panoramas, close-ups, and microscopic images were sent to the ‘spacewalk coordinator’ and other scientists monitoring the simulated mission from mission control.
“The next generation of lunar explorers will be trained in relevant scientific disciplines, but there will always be more expertise on Earth,” says Samuel Payler, research fellow at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.
“The challenge is to have this expertise transmitted to the astronauts during a moonwalk to make the best decisions based on science. Sharing data in real time, including images and video, is an essential part of this.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about the crash of the so-called ‘bitcoin bubble’, but a lesser-known aspect of crypto investing is the huge power drain that these novel currencies incur. According to one estimate made by Spyros Foteinis, a Greek environmental engineer, bitcoin and ethereum mining are already consuming 47 terawatt-hours per year. To put things into perspective, Greece, a country of 11 million people, consumes 57 terawatt-hours annually.
Bitcoin and ethereum together have a market cap of 88% of the total cryptocurrency market, so the whole cryptocurrency ecosystem is consuming even more power.
The reason why bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies use so much energy is rooted in the very way such networks operate. A digital currency isn’t controlled by a central bank but by the whole network of users who compile comprehensive records of payment transactions, known as “blockchain.” To compile these records, the network relies on “miners”, which are basically computers (like your own) occupied with solving complex mathematical problems in exchange for electronic coins.
Verifying transactions or “mining” becomes increasingly difficult as demand for bitcoin increases — and with it more demand for high-powered computer processing. This implies even more energy usage.
According to Foteinis, 58% of all crypto mining happens in China, where much of the power comes from coal-powered plants. Using a life-cycle assessment, Foteinis estimates bitcoin and ethereum mining emits as much greenhouse gases as 6.8 million average European inhabitants — or as much as 43.9 million tones of carbon dioxide equivalent.
By these figures, we can gather that not only are cryptocurrencies financially unstable, but also environmentally unstable as well.
“In my opinion, the cryptocurrency industry is urgently in need of reform to make it environmentally sustainable,” Foteinis wrote in a Nature editorial.
There are a couple of solutions to this problem. One would be to change the protocol of bitcoin and other cryptos to lower energy expenditure. Alternatively, users can switch entirely to new cryptos that are designed to use less power from the beginning. Ethereum, which is less decentralized than bitcoin, is working on changing its protocol to reduce energy use.
Canadian-based firm Nautilus Minerals Inc. plans to launch the world’s first deep sea mining operation in early 2019. The company will launch three remote-controlled mining robots off the coast of Papua New Guinea to the floor of the Bismark Sea to mine rich metal deposits.
Each of the robots is the size of a small house and equipped with huge rock-crushing, teeth-riddled devices to chew through the ocean’s bottom. The smallest one weighs 200 tons and they will be propelled from spot to spot on huge threads in their search for paydirt.
The first bot, known as the auxiliary cutter, clears the way for the other two to operate. Image credits Nautilius Minerals Inc.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are more mineral resources on the seafloor than on land,” Michael Johnston, CEO of Nautilus, said for Seeker. “Technology has allowed us to go there.”
Pressed by looming shortages on one hand and the prospect of lucrative exploitations on the other, companies and governing bodies have started joining hands to bring sea-bed mining into the picture. To date, over twenty exploration contracts have been issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a part of the UN tasked with regulating areas of the seafloor that lie outside of any national jurisdiction.
“In the seabed, resources are incredibly rich,” said Michael Lodge, Secretary-General of the ISA. “These are virgin resources. They’re extremely high-grade. And they are super-abundant.”
We’ve recently talked about how current levels of mining exploration and exploitation just won’t be able to supply future demand. As populations grow and economies develop, current raw material exploitations will need new additions to satisfy that extra demand. There’s also the need to create a strong mining base to support the development of low-carbon economies — which rely on technology materials that are in short supply currently.
Seabed mining offers an attractive solution to this problem: untouched resources just waiting to be taken in the form of massive sulfide deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt, gold, and platinum.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that there are thousands of years’ supply of minerals in the seabed,” Secretary-General Lodge said. “There is just absolutely no shortage.”
The Auxiliary Cutter removes rough terrain and creates benches for the other machines to work on. Image credits Nautilius Minerals Inc.
Nautilius says that early tests in the Bismark Sea site, have shown the area is over 10-times as rich in copper as comparable land-based mines, and has more than three times the concentration of gold than the average figure of land exploitations. These fantastic numbers generally come down to the fact that surface resources have been thoroughly explored and long exploited, meaning that the richest deposits on land aren’t around anymore — they’re now cars, or copper wires, or planes. So by comparison, the deposits locked on the sea floor look like a cornucopia of resources just waiting to be harvested.
And I’m all for that. Considering the need, it may not be a question of ‘do we want to exploit the sea floor’ but rather one of ‘how are we going to make it if we don’t?’ That being said, we’ve had a lot of time and opportunities up here on dry land to see what rampant exploitation without care for the places being exploited leads to. As the idea of seabed mining comes closer to reality, we should really think about what the consequences of our actions would be — and how not to make a mess down there as we did topside. Some think that we’re better off just banning the practice altogether.
“There are too many unknowns for this industry to go ahead,” said Natalie Lowrey of the Australia-based Deep Sea Mining Campaign. “We’ve already desecrated a lot of our lands. We don’t need to be doing that in the deep sea.”
“There’s a serious concern that the toxicity from disturbing the deep sea can move up the food chain to the local communities [who live along the coast of Papua New Guinea].”
The Collecting Machine gathers cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and pushing it through a flexible pipe to the riser and lifting system. Image credits Nautilus Minerals Inc.
One of her main concerns is that plumes of sediment stirred up during mining operations will travel along sea currents and interfere with ocean ecosystems. The clouds of silt could prove harmful to filter-feeders which often form the lower brackets of food chains — so a hit here would impact all other sea creatures.
Michael Johnston said that the company is taking the sediment plume issue seriously and have designed their equipment to minimize any undersea clouding generated by the collection procedure.
“When we’re cutting, we have suction turned on,” he said. “It’s not like we’re blowing stuff all over the place. We’re actually sucking it up. So the plume gets minimized through the mining process.”
“We go to great efforts to minimize the impact of the plumes. We’re quite confident that the impact from these activities will be significantly less than some of these people claim.”
Still, going forward we should primarily be concerned with not messing stuff up that much — because as we’ve seen, there’s no such thing as a free meal. We’ll have to wait and see how it all develops. In the meantime, one thing is certain.
“If Nautilus goes ahead, it’s going to open the gateway for this industry,” Lowrey concludes.
An international team of researchers led by Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware, warns that greater international political and scientific cooperation is needed to secure the resources we’ll need in the future.
Even ubiquitous iron could run short. Image credits nightowl / Pixabay.
To say that humanity today faces some challenges would be an understatement. Political unrest, climate change, income inequality, drug resistance, they all add up. Still, as a species, we’ve shown a knack for eventually overcoming all the problems that’ve been thrown our way — be them by chance or our own hand. All we need is enough time to think about a solution and enough stuff to put it together and voila! Progress.
But we may be soon running short on the second part, the raw materials, an international team of researchers warns. They say that greater international transparency and a free exchange of geophysical data between countries is needed to secure the future’s supply of raw minerals.
What’s (low) on the menu
The team includes members from the academic, industrial, and government sectors in institutions throughout the U.S., South America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia. They are primarily concerned with future supply of a wide range of technology minerals, which are indispensable in all kinds of industries — from copper wiring in homes or laptop batteries all the way to solar panels and superdense batteries for electric cars. However, they say there’s also cause for concern regarding base metals such as copper or iron ore.
“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said Ali, who is the paper’s lead author.
They looked at demand records and forecasts, as well as estimates of the sustainability of mineral supplies in the coming decades. They write that current mining operations won’t be able to keep up with the rise in demand, especially considering the fact that “implementation of the Paris Agreement requires technologies that utilize a wide range of minerals in vast quantities.” When push comes to shove, no matter how green our policy and technology gets, if we can’t build it and field it, it won’t do us much good. So we need to up our extraction game.
“Metal recycling and technological change will contribute to sustaining supply, but mining must continue and grow for the foreseeable future to ensure that such minerals remain available to industry,” they conclude.
The materials required for the transition to a low-carbon economy, the stuff that goes into manufacturing clean tech, will be particularly tricky, the researchers say. While base materials are used extensively in current economies –so it’s only a matter of expanding on well-established methods and deposits –traditionally there hasn’t been a wide-scale demand of the more exotic minerals required for clean energy sources, leaving society ill-equipped to meet the extra demand for these materials.
Neodymium is used to make the strongest permanent magnets we know of. Image credits Brett Jordan / Flickr.
We’ll have to both find suitable deposits and develop more efficient methods of extracting, refining, and handling these elements. Metals like neodymium, terbium, or iridium, although only needed in small quantities, can’t be substituted for anything else in certain clean energy applications and other advanced tech. So while they seem to only make up a tiny part of the overall requirements, they are vital for future applications. A bottleneck in terms of material production for these vital minerals would bottleneck development of the industry and ultimately energy production.
According to the team, the best way to prevent this is to work together. International coordination is needed to determine where to focus future exploration efforts, what areas are likely to be rich or poor in which resources and thus what kind of economic agreements are needed between different countries to make sure that there aren’t any deficiencies anywhere.
Supply and demand
Those of you who think laissez-faire systems are the bee’s knees are probably prickling in horror at the mere thought of internationalgovernmentmeddling in the market. But the team points out that the forces which dictate the prices of major commodity minerals don’t (currently) apply to rare earths and other technology minerals.
For example, the largest percentage of exploration investment in a single mineral is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry. It, along with other major commodity metals such as copper or iron ore are sold on a global market the same way grain or oil is, a market which fluctuates according to supply and demand. But rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary wildly between them.
Even more, the UN expects global population to reach about 8.5 billion by 2030, which means more demand for these substances in the next decade or so. For your run of the mill goods, take clothes or newspapers, a growth in demand (reflected in a greater price) is swiftly and easily followed by an increase in production. But mineral supply doesn’t follow that same relationship to demand, because of the huge spans of time required to get an exploitation up and running — the horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit, from exploration and subsequent discovery to actually mining the thing, is 10 to 15 years, the team says.
Rare earth elements are usually produced as oxides. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Image credits Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture / Wikimedia.
Considering that only about 10% or early exploration efforts result in a mineable deposit, the outlook is even bleaker. Most deposits prospectors find simply aren’t big enough or concentrated enough to be economically viable. Companies can also have a lot of trouble getting exploitation rights or run into zoning problems due to geopolitical factors.
“Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this,” Ali said.
The authors also warn that for many of the minerals their paper calls into discussion, there aren’t any substitutes. With so few commercially viable alternatives even for the humble copper wire, it’s simply a matter of produce enough stuff or run short.
Ali and his team hope that the paper will form the foundation of an intergovernmental framework or another similar system which would allow countries to plan and prevent mineral scarcity in the future — as both private and public sectors are dependent on raw materials. They say that quick improvements can be made through expansion of developing organizations, such as the United Nation’s International Resource Panel or the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development. Longer-term solutions will need greater international transparency and could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit ‘finds’ much like we protect intellectual property.
“It’s about managing the flow of resources from the ground to product to consumer to recycling,” Ali said.
“People have been so concerned about climate change that it’s created a real movement around it. We don’t see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis.”
The full paper “Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance” has been published in the journal Nature.
Moon Express' lunar lander, depicted here as an artist's impression. (c) Moon Express inc.
While the Earth is steadily being depleted of its natural resources, it might become imperative to look to the sky for alternatives. Studies so far alone has shown that the moon has twenty times more titanium and platinum than anywhere on Earth, along with helium 3, a rare isotope of helium, which is nonexistent on our planet, that many feel could be the future of energy on Earth and in space.
Even though it may seem that space exploration has been set up a huge step back after NASA retired its shuttle program, the future might be a highly bright one thanks to privatized space programs. Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, Inc., is one of the couple of billionaires today who share a common vision – the future of private space capitalization. Jain’s idea, in particular, is that of bringing lunar landers and mining platforms to the moon.
“People ask, why do we want to go back to the moon? Isn’t it just barren soil?” Jain said. “But the moon has never been explored from an entrepreneurial perspective.”
He actually sees a lot of opportunities with lunar exploration, besides mining.
“No one has ever captured people’s fascination with the moon,” he said. “What if, say, we take a picture of your family on the moon and project it back to you? Or take DNA up there?”
So far, this company Moon Express has already been awarded $10 million by NASA, part of the agency’s Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) program, and is also shooting for the $30 million put into play by Google’s Lunar X Prize. Jain, a self-made billionaire, is confident that by 2013 his company will commence the first mining operations on the moon. So far, MoonEx’s lunar lander successfully completed a flight test at the Hover Test Facility in NASA’s Ames Research Center
“Perpetual ownership of private or government assets in space or on other bodies is a well defined, documented and practiced aspect of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty,” explained company CEO Bob Richards in a recent blog post.
You might think that mining on the moon would be a at least ten times more expensive than mining on Earth, no matter how precious that material might be, but according to MoonEx officials the difficult part is only setting-up an initial infrastructure. From the moon, ore or helium3, might be easily transported by putting it into orbit, where it would be collected and delivered on Earth using solar sails.
“We want to solve the problem of energy on Earth by using the moon as the eighth continent”
Whenever you think you have the worst job ever, you definitely should think about the sulphur miners from Eastern Java, the men who treat poisoned lungs, burns, scars and constant danger as part of their everyday living. Each day, a few hundred men go deep in the heart of the Ijen volcano, with the sole purpose of collecting yellow lumps of sulphur that solidify beside its acidic crater lake.
Photo by Aditya Suseno.
Just in case you’re wondering, sulphur has numerous uses, both inside Indonesia and outside: it is used to vulcanise rubber, make matches and fertiliser and even bleach sugar. Each day, they go up the mountain and gather 90 kg loads from the toxic lake, which they then have to carry back to a weighing station at the base of the volcano; and they do this several times per day.
Photo by Aditya Suseno.
“There are many big mountains but only one gives us the sulphur we need,” says Sulaiman, 31, who has mined the crater for 13 years.
Photo by Matt Paish.
About protection, you really shouldn’t – gas masks or gloves would be nothing less than a luxury for these men, who get paid around 10-15$ per day. The only protection from the deadly gas is clothing. But deadly gases aren’t the only thing they have to be wary of. In the past 40 years, 74 miners have died because of fumes that can come from fissures in the rock, more specifically hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gases, which are so concentrated they can even dissolve teeth, let alone the other parts of the body.
This practice wasn’t so uncommon 200 years ago, but by now it is mechanized in pretty much every part of the world. Clive Oppenheimer, of Cambridge University explains:
“Until the late 19th Century, there were sulphur mines in volcanic countries such as Italy, New Zealand, Chile and Indonesia.”
Photo by Aditya Suseno.
The work they do takes a harsh toll on their bodies; few of them live to grow old. However, their bodies have adapted, and most of them can hold their breath for several minutes; they also tend to develop amazing shoulder muscles from carrying baskets twice their bodyweight.
“Our families worry when we come here. They say working here can shorten your life,” says Hartomo, 34, a sulphur miner for 12 years. “I do it to feed my wife and kid. No other job pays this well,” adds Sulaiman.
The next step in prospecting and mining has always been a subject of speculation and theories, ever since the days of Jules Verne. For decades, an idea that flourished more and more was to gather up potato-sized magnanese nodules, rich in nickel, cobalt and manganese, that are very valuable in large quantities. The problem is that pretty much all the time, they lie miles below the seafloor, which obviously poses some serious technical questions.
The classical idea of building giant vacuums to suck up the nodules never proved to be economically sustainable; however, it was recently discovered that these modules are have a high content of rare earth minerals, elements that have a high demand rate but have recently reached a production roadblock. China, which controls about 95% of the worldwide quantity had stopped seeling them, creating huge political and industrial alarms; they stopped the embargo a few weeks ago, but the hunt for other sources still continues – this could give the seabed miners quite a few reasons to smile and rub their hands.
“People are quite intrigued,” said James R. Hein, a geologist with the United State Geological Survey who specializes in seabed minerals. Depending on China’s behavior and the global reaction, he said, “rare earths may be the driving force in the near future.”
About a month ago, Dr. Hein and five colleagues from Germany presented a paper on harvesting the nodules for rare and valuable metals, and concluded that there really is something there.
“They really do add value,” Charles L. Morgan, chairman of the institute, said of the rare earths in an interview. The result, he added, is that the nodules have taken on a new luster. “People are starting to think, ‘Well, maybe these things aren’t so dumb after all.’ ”
Rare earths are quite interesting from a number of perspectives; most of them are not really rare at all, but they rarely gather up in large quantities; some of them are practically neglectable. For example, an isotope of Promethium has only 572 g in the entire Earth’s crust. Right now, they really aren’t extremely important, but things could change pretty quick, especially with the current unstable political situation.
“The global activity is tremendous,” said Dr. Hein of geological survey, referring to undersea exploration as well as processing assessments on land. “Right now, rare earths are not the driving force,” he said. “But for copper and nickel, the prices are there.”