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Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to…

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Why EROEI Means Mining in Space will Never Work

The prospect of exploration in space for minerals has been the substance of science fiction, but in the face of a rapid depletion of non-renewable resources, and a likely downturn in funding for space projects in general, in these times of austerity, "mining asteroids" has emerged as an apparently serious proposition. Two companies, "Planetary Resources" and "Deep Space Industries", have now unveiled their plans to look for precious metals, such as gold, platinum, rare earth elements, on asteroids. It is believed that water, which is costly to send up in space, might be present as water-ice, and so might be converted to rocket fuels to support space vehicles, or even breathable oxygen, for the new industry. It is postulated that a space fuel-station might be in operation by 2020, and from where, fuel such as hydrogen could be transferred down to earth orbit to refuel commercial satellites or spacecraft.

Deep Space Industries intends to send out smaller (25 kg mass) vessels - "Fireflies" - fitted with low-cost CubeSat components to explore asteroids for potential bounty, and their launching-costs would be brought down by being launched with heavier, commercial communications satellites. It is anticipated that the first launch will take place in 2015, and that the fireflies will be sent on a journey of 2-6 months, equipped with telescopes that can sense from remote the presence of particular elements. Having targeted a likely source-rock, larger craft - "Dragonflies" - would next be sent out, on round trips of 2-4 years, to physically recover up to 70 kg of material.

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It is thought that only by mining resources in space, can permanent space-development be made economically viable. Initially, Deep Space Industries intends to sell observation platforms in orbit around Earth to prospecting services, as the industry opens-up on a free-market basis, but that actual mining will be underway during the next decade. There are thousands of asteroids that pass fairly close to Earth, which it is considered might be ripe for harvesting. Space-tourism also appears to be another potential income stream.

This is very much a case of playing the longer game, and it might be decades before investors get their money back, if they ever do, e.g. platinum now costs around $1,600 an ounce, and in comparison, a planned mission by NASA to bring back 60 g of material from an asteroid to Earth is expected to cost about $1bn http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17827347. Since this represents the price of 18 tonnes of pure platinum, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) is very far into the red, given the likely quantity of asteroid material to be recovered. Hence, the case for a viable industry on this basis is not compelling. Most likely, whatever materials that are recovered in space, would be best used in space, so that their value is increased by virtue of not having to transport them from earth, e.g. for their use in space stations. That said, the likelihood of establishing a self-sustaining space-based, space-industry must be questionable, in terms of the energy and other resources, including actual metal extraction and device fabrication, that would be required.

As far as mining gas and oil on asteroids is concerned, in terms of EROEI the notion is no more than a pipe-dream, and rather we must confront the falling EROEI for such resources as already pertains on earth, since the emerging "hole" in conventional crude oil and gas production must increasingly be filled by unconventional versions, that are more laborious and thus more expensive to provide.

By. Chris Rhodes

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  • Dallin on January 28 2013 said:
    You had good points, but I've read the Deep Space industries website all the way through, and it says explicitly there that they only plan on servicing in space customers, unless unforeseen economies of scale, and technological breakthroughs make it cost effective to begin transporting metals to Earth. I disliked the absolutism of your title also, who is to say what advances in materials science might yield over the remainder of humanities existence? Maybe someday a space elevator like those Science Fiction writers are so fond of might be feasible.
  • James Norred on January 28 2013 said:
    Very good article and I agree with Professor Rhodes on almost all points, but have some different opinions. First off I am a layman on the economics here, but was in the industry for 30+ years doing gas compressors, both turbines and recip (big stationary machines were my specialty). I am now an old geek who runs his own fledgeling computer business. I have always loved science fiction, and especially the greats. Mind you I am not a professional writer by any stretch of the imagination, LoL.

    I don't think fossil fuel will be in near the demand in 20 or 30 years, nor do I think wind or solar in their present stage are the answer either. I do know we will discover something better soon out of necessity, as is the way of things. As mentioned by the author the proposals mentioned are really a dream because the idea is still bound by earth with the idea of humans doing this on remote space stations.

    We as a species have not evolved to live in space as evident by how our bodies quickly deteriorate in a short time in low earth orbit. It will take many generation before humans can live any period of time in deep space. Besides the cost of keeping humans alive in space takes up a huge part of the budget, thereby limiting what they can actually do once they get there. But we have robotics and we are getting very good with them hence the Curiosity Rover landing. I think we could some day mine asteroids and perhaps the Moon or even Mars, but with robots, and with the goal of building future human colonies in space. Not earthbound concepts dependent on earthbound industry. Add to this advances in nanotechnology and you have some interesting options. A lot of everyday things could be mined, refined, and manufactured in space by robots then sent to earth in containers that themselves can be recycled into useable products.

    Since we are speaking of dreams I thought I would through my ideas out there.
  • Kaveta on January 28 2013 said:
    I for one was not aware that gas or oil existed on asteroids...
  • Mark McCrum on January 28 2013 said:
    Interesting article but both DSI and Planetary Resources are quite explicit in their recognition that shipping resources to Earth is unlikely to be cost-effective any time soon or ever. The emphasis is very much on using the materials in space where they they are much more valuable given the cost of lifting the same mass of material out of the Earth's gravity well. It would be interesting to know why you think this scenario is so unlikely.
    As for mining oil from asteroids, well the simple answer is that there won't be any!
  • Emory Stagmer on January 28 2013 said:
    To take the 60g for $1B as a baseline is ridiculous. Commercial companies can do better than that by many orders of magnitude, and that's just on the initial investment. Once an infrastructure is established, subsequent investment is smaller and returns are higher, just like any other industry. There's $5,000T dollars worth of platinum visible on the surface of this side of the moon. The technology exists now to start retrieving it. Several companies are in the infancy stages of working to go after those resources. The water, used in-space, not returned to Earth, is the short term goal of these asteroid companies and the lunar miners are already planning to use them. Considering that it costs almost $400K per gallon of water landed on the moon, every cc of water the asteroid miners can produce will turn a significant profit.
    I'm sure you can find better economic models, why not do a REAL bit of research and give us a real world analysis rather than a dismissive handwave?
    Recommended reading 'Moon Rush' by Dennis Wingo, Apogee Books.
    Follow me on Twitter @VAXHeadroom (and Dennis Wingo @wingod)
  • miketoy0 on January 28 2013 said:
    Isn't hydroxyl coating the moon and some asteroids?

    Isn't hydroxyl the best rocket fuel and doesn't it yield water?

    Is hydroxyl formed when CMEs join oxygen from rocks?

    How much do we spend sending 1 ounce to space?

    Because the cheapest materials price has to have the cost of transport added everything in space becomes precious.
  • Martin K on January 29 2013 said:
    I would remind Professor Rhodes that never is a very long time. There was a time when it was not cost effective to ship anything across the Atlantic Ocean because the food and water the oarsmen needed exceeded the size of the ships then in existence. Better navigation and seamenship methods enabled smaller crews that could make the trip and a couple centuries later, the ability to preserve citrus fruits removed the limitation created by scurvy, making possible the longest ocean voyages. We will find ways to live elsewhere in the Solar System, sooner rather than later unless we develop a universal World Government that "burns the boats" the way the Chinese officials did Cheng Ho's ships after his expeditions. As long as we have competition between nations, the rarity of elements like Platinum and their concentration in a few countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe will make the marginal cost of mining asteroids for it attractive whatever the energy cost of bringing it back. Someone will always need an alternative supply for rare strategically significant minerals.
    Martin K
  • travis on January 30 2013 said:
    IMHO precious metals are only valuable as long as there is enough excess energy available for their retrieval, whether they are located in space or on our planet. Speaking of lunar resources is meaningless. We have energy here on Earth that is not economical to use. What makes the lunar energy more attractive?

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