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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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The Harsh Truth About Space Mining and Direct Air Capture

  • As the energy transition gains momentum, there is ever more interest in capturing carbon and securing the critical minerals for new energy technologies.
  • One increasingly popular form of carbon capture is direct air capture, a technology that sounds very promising but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
  • The value of potential resources available in space is mindboggling to consider, but not as mindboggling as the cost of bringing it back to earth.
Space mining

The dictionary doesn't quite do justice to the word "boondoggle" according to author Dmitri Orlov, best known for his book Reinventing CollapseA contemporary boondoggle must not only be wasteful, it should, if possible, also create additional problems that can only be addressed by yet more boondoggles. (This does NOT preclude boondoggles from being profitable for certain insiders.)

In Orlov's universe, such boondoggles dissipate the wealth and vitality of a society until it collapses. But if executed properly, boondoggles first grind down society without actually collapsing it. When the collapse finally does come, it is like "falling out of a ground-floor window." In the collapsenik lexicon, this is what passes for a soft landing.

Two important boondoggles were in the news recently: a big set of machines that extract carbon dioxide from the air and companies formed to mine asteroids.

Let's take the carbon dioxide plant in Iceland first. My initial thought is to make this technology modular so any size extractor can be built. Then, declare deployment of this technology mandatory on the premises of any business emitting carbon dioxide directly into the air. Why wait to capture the greenhouse gas until it makes its way to Iceland? Let's trap it everywhere at its source.

However, I fear I may be violating the first rule of boondoggles with this proposal. Boondoggles must NOT be conceived in a way that would actually solve a problem. But it turns out that using this technology in places without ready access to sufficient sources of non-carbon energy would actually force increased use of fossil fuels to power the extractors that remove carbon dioxide from the air. It's a perfect circle that would increase emissions of the very gas it is trying to extract. (Compare to self-licking ice cream cone.)

There is the argument that the world will soon ramp up huge new sources of energy that are carbon-free. As of 2021 after decades of renewable energy deployment, the world now generates less than 2 percent of its total energy from solar and less than 3 percent from wind according to Our World in Data (and based on the BP Statistical Review of World Energy). A little over 6 percent is from hydroelectric. But most of the best sites in the world have been taken. And, the energy from existing hydroelectric plants is already committed anyway.

Other renewable energy (which includes geothermal power of the kind found in abundance in Iceland) contributes 1.3 percent of the world's energy. Moreover, fossil fuel use, particularly coal and natural gas, continue to grow. Renewable energy is adding to world energy capacity, but not substituting itself for existing fossil fuel use on a net basis.

Let us turn to the quest for minerals locked in asteroids which may be a better boondoggle than atmospheric carbon dioxide extractors in one very important way. This is because asteroid mining ventures appear to burn money without producing any tangible result, a characteristic that indicates one has found a pure boondoggle according to Orlov.

Here's how it works:

A sharp promoter gets members of the investing public—ones, for example, who are excited about science fiction stories such as those that make up any of the Star Trek series—to throw their money at the idea of mining asteroids that might be "pure metal" or close to it. (It's also possible that they are NOT pure metal. No one knows for sure.)

It's important for these investors NOT to understand the economics of mining. If they did, they would be investing in terrestrial mining operations or some other sector of the earthbound economy instead of the boondoggle of asteroid mining. Such mining assumes that the costs of extracting earthbound mineral deposits will rise sufficiently to match the cost of asteroid mining, thereby making asteroid mining competitive.

Let's take a general look at what might be involved in mining asteroids by reviewing a current NASA mission to what is thought to be a major metal-containing asteroid called Psyche, which is located in the Asteroid Belt:

  1. The transport distances are enormous. Psyche will be visited by a NASA probe launched in October 2023, one that is expected to reach the asteroid in August 2029 after a journey of 2.2 billion miles.
  2. The cost of the Psyche mission is around $1.2 billion. This is just to get a small craft weighing about three tons to its destination and have it orbit for a couple of years. Mining equipment would be much, much more massive.
  3. Psyche doesn't have to return to Earth. But, metal ore would have to be extracted somehow under near zero gravity, loaded, and then transported billions of miles on a regular basis. (Some refining might take place before transport to reduce the bulk, but that then involves bringing more equipment and expending vast amounts of energy that must come from somewhere, possibly fuel that is also transported.) It's true that other asteroids that might have high metal content are closer to Earth. One of these asteroids, named (6178) 1986 DA, is about 18 million miles away from Earth which is equivalent to about 75 times the distance of the moon—not exactly next door.
  4. Scientists estimate that the value of the metal in Psyche is around $10 quintillion and the metal in the much closer asteroid referred to above is $11.65 trillion. If asteroid miners were able to unlock vast amounts of ore from either of these and get it to Earth, prices of those minerals would likely plummet as huge supplies hit the market. Of course, asteroid miners could transport much smaller quantities, but that would greatly increase the cost per ton. Alternatively, the miners could hold back ore already delivered to Earth and sell only in relatively small quantities so as not to overwhelm the market. But that would add costs for storage and seriously delay any payback to investors who presumably would have already waited decades for a payout.

As my mother used to say about truly crazy ideas that defy logic: "It makes sense if you don't think about it." And the not thinking part is what promoters of asteroid mining are counting on. My mother, of course, was assuming that the purpose of such ideas was to solve a problem. In this particular case, however, we have an ideal vehicle for burning money with virtually no hope of any return—at least on any time frame that might matter to investors. In sum, asteroid mining is one of the best boondoggles available to investors today.

There are some who will say that metals mined from asteroids will, in fact, be used by space colonists and are not for Earth consumption. If that's so, then asteroid mining is an even better boondoggle than I thought it was.

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There are many more boondoggles to cover, so much so that commentary on them could fill an entire blog for years. But my purpose here is to give you general tools to identify them and respond accordingly—in case you want to participate in the fun.

By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights

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Leave a comment
  • Alex Ashton on May 23 2024 said:
    DAC is techno-economically nonsensical, a dangerous distraction from more effective options.

    Space-mining may one day be practical for very rare elements like gold, platinum, iridium, rhodium, etc., but it will never recoup the entire cost of man's presence in space at the level needed to conduct the operations. The financial returns from life in space will never exceed the cost of colonizing it.

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