Ronald Brak

Because not everyone can be normal.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Great Asteroid Mining Con

There are some people who think that mining asteroids is a good idea. And not just for building things to use in space, but to ship metals to earth to sell. They say things like, “The metals in the near-earth iron asteroid Amun are worth 20 trillion dollars.”

But is the current market value of metals the proper way to value an asteroid? Wouldn’t it make just as much sense to say that since I can buy meteorites for 25 cents a gram on e-bay, the market value of the asteroid is 25 cents per gram? And since it weighs 30 billion tons, therefore the asteroid is actually worth 7,500 trillion dollars? I mean that’s using the market price, isn’t it? And while these asteroid mining enthusiasts like to tell you how much money Amun is supposed to be worth, they never tell you how much a similar amount of earth dirt is worth. Well according to my calculations 30 billion tons of earth dirt is worth over $1,700,000,000,000,000. Which makes a ton of dirt worth about $57,000. Not bad, hey? Might be a good idea to run outside with a shovel.

But wait a minute, you say! How can plain earth dirt be worth that much? Well it’s quite simple. You see 99.9999% pure silicon sells for about $200 per kilogram and the earth’s crust is 27.7% silicon. Of course it’s only worth that much after you have removed and purified the silicon. Before that the dirt is only worth as much as dirt. But counting an asteroid as being worth what it would be if all it’s substances were refined, purified and sold at today’s prices is pretty much just as stupid.

To really test how much the asteroid is worth, let’s assume that there is a hole in the space-time continuum in your bedroom cupboard that not only allows instantaneous transportation of material from this asteroid, but it delivers it in conveniently sized chunks. Ignoring its novelty value, how much could you sell this asteroid material for on earth? Well the answer to that is simple. You could sell it for about $300 U.S. per ton because that’s what scrap metal sells for these days and an iron asteroid is basically a big chunk of stainless steel. The good news is there are plenty of scrap metal dealers around so you won’t have to lug it too far to trade it for cash. This means that even with zero transportation costs and assuming that thirty billion tons will in no way push down today's current high prices, then at best the asteroid Amun is worth about nine trillion dollars, not 20 trillion.

But wait a minute! Some people say asteroids are supposed to be chock full of valuable metals such as platinum which currently sells for about $33 a gram! Couldn’t we just extract the platinum and forget about the steel? Well there are some problems with this. You see on earth there’s all sorts of geological activity, mostly involving water, that can concentrate ores and metals. But iron asteroids don’t have this activity. They’re just chunks of a busted planetoid’s core. As a result, precious metals aren’t going to be concentrated but are going to be evenly spread throughout the damn thing.

But some iron asteroids, perhaps one in fifty, contain 30 grams of platinum per ton or more! On earth 30 grams of platinum per ton would be equal to moderate to high grade platinum ore, so if your chunks of asteroid had this much in them, surely you could sell them to someone who owns a platinum refinery for a good price? Well, probably not, because I don’t think they’d be very impressed by the fact that the platinum is inside a block of nickel alloy stainless steel. That could increase the cost of extracting the platinum considerably. Most things become harder to extract once they’ve been placed inside a solid hunk of steel. A platinum refinery wouldn't pay as much for it as a scrap metal dealer.

Some people say that weightlessness in space will make refining stuff like platinum easier. Well I challenge everyone in the whole wide world to name one thing that is easier in weightlessness, and you’re not allowed to say, “Floating in the air.” I can’t think of anything at all that becomes easier in zero gee. There is a reason why the space shuttle toilet cost twenty-three million dollars, you know. But what if I’m wrong? What if it is easier to refine metals in weightlessness? If only there were some way to mimic weightlessness on earth. If only there were some sort of substance in which things could float. Just for the sake of the argument, I would call this imaginary substance a liquid. If only we could convert say platinum ore into some sort of magical liquid solution when we refine it. Wait a minute! That’s what they actually do in platinum refineries! Several times in fact! Freaky, hey? But even so, extracting platinum from ore is a very expensive and difficult business, despite the weightlessness offered by this incredible stuff called liquid.

Then there’s the argument that we have to go into space and mine asteroids now because the earth is running out of metals. Well this just isn’t true. A couple of hours drive from my house there is enough copper in the ground to supply the earth for maybe a couple of hundred years. But nobody is extracting it because the ore is so low grade it would take a hellacious amount of energy and effort to refine it. The more energy it costs to extract, the more the copper is going to cost. The earth might be running out of cheap and convenient high quality deposits of some metals, but it’s certainly not running out of metal. In the future we may have to pay extra for the energy to extract metals from low grade deposits, but it’s still going to be easier to extract copper from ore that only has a few kilos of copper per ton than it’s going to be to extract copper from asteroids that have only grams of copper per ton.

Now some people say that the costs of mining asteroids don’t matter because once we start it will all pay for itself. All we need to do is send a few robots to an asteroid and they will then build more robots and solar energy collectors and mining equipment and rocket ships and so on. Well, tell you what, you give me access to the same technology, you send your robots to an asteroid and I’ll send mine to say the middle of Western Australia. Then we’ll see who makes the most profit. Now you might say that my robots will have a disadvantage because it’s harder to use solar energy on earth than in space on account of things like clouds and night and bird poop, but my robots will have the advantage of being able to use wind power, or burn coal, or use geothermal energy, or dial up the local power company and get connected to the grid. All of these options are a bit tricky in the depths of space. I’ll also have the advantage of being able to drive out there with my spanner set and fix ‘em if something goes wrong. Also, you would have to waste a lot of time building and powering your rocket ships while I could spend my time building things people actually need, like robo prostitutes. Then there’s the fact that I can respond to changes in demand as they happen where as your stuff might spend years just being transported to earth.

Anyway, in conclusion I would like to say that asteroid mining is a pretty sucky idea. Now it’s probably just dandy for getting resources for use in space itself, but there just doesn’t seem to be any point in lugging stuff all the way from asteroids to earth.


At 3:18 PM, Blogger the amazing kim said...

Dammit man, you're a genius.

At 6:17 AM, Blogger Ahistoricality said...

No argument, as far as it goes. But there's two aspects of asteroid mining which could, in part, redeem the discussion to something resembling realism, both of them related to the possibility of human settlement off-earth.

First, water. Our most likely candidate planets and moons are pretty water-poor, but there's a considerable amount of water out there in space, in big, not entirely convenient, chunks. Second, what's common and easy to extract on earth will often be relatively unavailable on Mars, etc., and the costs of getting and refining asteroidal metals may well be less than the cost (monetary, environmental, etc.) of bringing earth-origin materials out of the gravity well.

Overall, though, you're right: these discussions have to be done with some economic and technical realism to be worthwhile.

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Sean said...

Interesting, sir. I agree that the issue of the economics of starting to exploit the rest of the solar system are rather more complex than some would argue. But what about Harry Stine's argument that we will undoubtedly invent industrial processes to take advantage of free fall, just as we have invented ones to take advantage of one gravity? And as for ability to respond to market conditions, don't most asteroid-mining schemes assume that asteroids are first moved somewhere conveient (say a Lagrange point) and processed there? As for adapting to changes in the market, at least warehousing excess metal in orbit is free!
I came across your blog through the Skepcics' Carnical, by the way, and am not a regular reader.

At 1:06 PM, Blogger Ronald Brak said...

Hi sean, Ronald here. While I cheerfully admit that I could be wrong, I find it hard to believe that mining asteroids in the future and transporting materials to earth will be cheaper than simply mining materials on earth. While asteroid mining enthusiasts often have good imaginations, their imagination often seems to stop when it comes to earth bound mining. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of recognition of the fact that any technical advances that make it easier to mine asteroids are also likely to make it easier to mine on earth. Then there is the cost of moving stuff around in space. Rather than spend energy moving asteroid material around the solar system it could actually be more profitable to beam that energy to earth and sell it to a power company. No business is going to spend energy moving stuff around space if they can make more money by just selling the energy. Some people might say that a space elevator will lower the cost of moving stuff to and from space, but if we have the technology to build and repair a cable that is strong enough to be suspended from orbit and is presumably made from carbon, what will we need metal for? I’ll just make my car out of the same material the cable is made of and it will weigh about ten kilos. Instead of parking it I’ll just close the doors and pump the air out of it and it will bob in the air on a string like a balloon. I’m not sure how a ten kilogram car would handle when it’s windy, but then I’d probably want a flying car anyway since I’ll live in a floating house made from the same ultra-light, ultra-strong space cable material. Of course if we all want platinum toilets in our flying houses maybe we will have to mine asteroids.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Ronald Brak said...

Whoops! I just realized that even if I pump all the air out of my 10 kilo car it won't float, it will just weigh about four and a half kilos less. Sometimes my imagination runs ahead of my ability to do simple maths. But that's still light enough to hang on a hook or perhaps suction cap to a window.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument for mining asteroids is simple if the the metals are to be used in space. The cost of transporting metals into earth orbit is nearly prohibitive. The cost of transporting people is nearly so if you doubt this just try and buy a ticket into space. The current cost of raising a single pound into space is in the neighborhood of $13,000. The cost is going up astronomically.

The real questions we should be asking are how do we mine an asteroid, it isn't as if there is a model we can follow at this time. When we have the raw material how will the metals be seperated and refined again it isn't as if much research has been done on a subject as this. Metal working in a low gravity environment will be much different from here on Earth, normal foundry processes will not work.

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mining an asteroid

If I have a crumbly asteroid, I just need to use an electromagnet to pick up chunks of iron-rich metal. Assuming I pick the right asteroid, these chunks could be pretty pure, around 80% or so. In the microgravity of an asteroid, I could use a pretty small electromagnet to get quite a lot of material. Some sort of ship above the asteroid could shoot bullet things at the asteroid's surface to loosen the asteroid soil above the asteroid, where the iron-rich chunks would attach to the electromagnet. Just get an electromagnet so that about ten thousand times the craft's mass is iron ore attached to the electromagnet, and slowly launch towards earth.

It's important to take advantage of the microgravity, instead of fighting against it. The big electromagnet idea is probably a really good one, since magnetic forces are easily much greater than gravitational forces near an asteroid. Stir up a lot of asteroidal material off of the surface, and simply have a big electromagnet turn on and wait. If you pick the right asteroid, then the mining of the asteroid is just that simple. The ore may need to be processed in order to survive the fall to earth, but that simply involves the careful application of heat, which is in ready supply with a big solar mirror of aluminum foil.

In this case, you would have to launch the mining craft at a near-earth asteroid so that when the asteroid comes near earth, the requisite amount of ore would be extracted. Then, your delta-v (in other words, what you need to change your velocity, or speed, by in order to get to where you need to go) would be very, very small, especially if this process takes years. You'd want to somehow (solar oven) melt the ore into big blobs of iron so you could just hurl them into the ocean somewhere (with perhaps a big inflatable balloon thing attached so that they would float, or you could just fish them out). Actually, Antarctica or Greenland might be a better place to send them, since the iron blobs wouldn't sink far, they would be easy to find, and no one lives there. Sell them for scrap metal. Profit.

This whole deal requires launch prices to be about $1000 per pound or so to really be profitable, but I suppose one could reuse the mining equipment (although it's probably better to just use expendable equipment).

Also, one could get around the problem of processing in space by simply identifying big enough chunks of rich enough ore and just launching them directly (and carefully) at earth to fall to Antarctica/Greenland.

by Robotbeat

At 2:51 AM, Blogger bodie1252000 said...

the huge nickel deposits in canada that we mine are the result of an asteroid strike so we are already mining asteroids in one respect.

the biggest cost to refining is energy and its free in space so the cost of refining drops to zip once the equipment is there. the scale of the problem is no worse that the pyrimids and much more lucrative.

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously asteroid mining isn't feasible right now, and certainly advances in earth bound mining will continue even when we develop asteroid mining. However, this is shaping up to be the green century, and resistance to mining is likely to continue to grow. Now I don't imagine asteroid mining will replace conventional mining any time in my lifetime, which I expect to last another 50-60 years without the benefit of medical advances that will likely prolong it even more. Nevertheless, I do anticipate that humans will look more to the exploitation of space as the world population continues to grow and standard of living continues to increase all around the world. However we intend to use space, there will be some necessity for space infrastructure. Even if no minerals are even returned to the earth because it is more efficient to simply beam power down, power beaming systems will have to be built using mineral deposits from somewhere. While some have suggested that transporting minerals from space to earth is – rightly – and always will be – less certain – prohibitively expensive, the same is true of shipping materials from earth to space. One poster wrote that it costs $13,000 per pound shipped into space. My understanding is that this is a lowball estimate and a more reasonable figure is $20,000. That is an exorbitant price to ship an energy harvesting station and its accompanying power beaming systems into space. Harvesting minerals in space for use in such power beaming stations will be much more economical. Of course, as I already mentioned, we're not there yet. But it would be foolish to ignore such abundant resources merely because they are not yet economically practical. They will be one day, if not for the purpose that we currently envision.

At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that transporting stuff back to earth would be prohibitive, with the exception of precious metals. The up side of mining asteroids is that you can build large crap out in space without paying the insane cost of sending up the raw materials. If you are going to mine the asteroids, you might as well take everything out of them (godl/platinum). It is basically what they do on earth also. Many copper mines have gold also, and they just use the money from the gold against the cost of copper, and things get more efficient.

I think the big problem with mining in space and bringing it back down here is the bringing it back down here part.

"Hey Siberia, we need to get a 500 ton ingot of iron back to the earth, and, um, you are the spot. We know that the energy release will be on the order of a good size nuclear explosion, but we saved $8.67 mining this thing in space. Please have everyone out of there." And then what happens when you miss your target and take out Beijing? You'll have 5 billion mad Chinese ready to kill you.

Mining in space for space, good. Mining very expensive materials in space so send back (platinum and H-3, if it works out), good. Mining iron for export to earth? What are you thinking!

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

obviously asteroid mining isn't economical now because there is no tech for it right now, but because of the pressing need to spread out into space and expand we need a easy way to get resources out in space and because asteroids are basically giant chunks of iron they are exactly what we need to expand our horizons and move out into space.

At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one problem you say that scrap iron is $300 per ton then you say a ton of dirt is worth $57000 because of the that doesn't sound right...ohh ya maybe because your estimate doesn't take into account the large cost to change dirt into 99.9999% pure silicon...asteroid mining will become a viable source of resources in the future because earth willn't(this is just a thing i like to do WONT is STUPID GO WITH WILLN'T) be able to sustain the human race anymore.

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My science teacher printed this out for our science class, because we're learning about asteroid mining...this is so cool!

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Ronald Brak said...

My goodness! What I've written is having an effect on the world? I'll have to start blogging again! Now what's my password?

By the way, I'm glad that you're in a school system where the words "robo prostitute" aren't banned.

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Kull said...

I never saw a more ignorant or hypocritical rant... speak as if all of the asteroids are M-type...what about S-type asteroids?

M-type asteroids are the remnants of planetary cores...of course refining them would be damn' hard!

S-type asteroids are crustal remnants, mining and refining them won't be harder than mining Earth's own crust!

The great concern about hauling Asteroidal ore to Earth is energy, but Asteroidal mining needs nuclear fusion to be possible, with nuclear fusion energy will be free so the cost of getting the ore back to Terra would become inconsequential...

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Frankly it doesn't seem like you've actually done your home work on this one. The Colorado School of Mines has a Center for Space Resources that takes the potential mining of NEOs very seriously, and with good reason.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger George said...

"...then at best the asteroid Amun is worth about nine trillion dollars, not 20 trillion. "

I don't know how much money you earn, but I wouldn't be so pricky about 9 trillion.....
We are going great lengths to mine metal from Earth. We extract the iron from ore, melting tons of waste in order to extract few drops of metal.
I guess that with the right technology, namely some nuclear (fusion) power propulsion - and with proper energy which is much easier to produce in space, asteroid mining/refining may be profitable in the "not so distant" future.
Even if the raw metal price will go down, think of the countless applications which will become available. Not to mention how much polution we're going to avoid here on Earth, from mining, transporting and refining the ore.

As for the 23 million space toilet... it's true, it may be expensive to build one, but this is one of a kind - you have a whole industry, design, testing, just to build a few of these things.
When we'll colonize the skies, I bet the space toilets will get much cheaper.

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous The Epicure said...

I recall during the peak of the Japanese real estate bubble that the "value" of the roughly one mile by one mile Imperial Palace in the center of Tokyo would be worth as much as the entire state of California (or as much as all of Canada). Such analogies of course ignore the basic laws of supply and demand ... if for some reason the Japanese Emperor decided to sell all this land, there would be so much supply that prices would plummet. Same goes for a number of those analogies.

While I share your skepticism, I do disagree that there is no possibility of space mining. Private enterprise has been very clever and innovative in extracting commodities under very arduous circumstances. The oil and gas industry drilled a well 7 miles deep.

Just as one should ignore the economics of selling the stuff based on current market prices, as you articulated well, one should ignore the economics of mining, refining and transporting the stuff based on today's prices. Getting there is expensive today but will get orders of magnitude cheaper.

Refining takes oodles of energy today -- but if there's any place where Solar Energy is actually practical and economical, it would be up there (24 hours direct, un-obscured, sunlight, and the real estate to support the massively large arrays required for very high power and yes, at zero G, is not an obstacle), we can thrown near-limitless energy at the refining and transport problems. Etc.

One must think that private industry would address this problem far more effectively than Government. After all, you'll soon be able to take a space trip for $200K on Virgin Galactic, which would cost $20million from the cheapest Government source. I would imagine that we could eventually conquer even this (daunting) challenge.

At 2:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Points to take into account while reading the article:

The Earth is not 27.7% made of 99.9999% pure silicon. It does not naturally contain any 99.9999% pure silicon.

Asteroids are not formed from planet cores. Planet cores are formed from asteroids.

Liquids and solutions have lots of weight when they are on Earth - virtually as much weight as solids. Melting or dissolving things doesn't make them weightless.

The human race should expand throughout the solar system, therefore the most attractive reason to take the asteroids back to Earth is to land them right on top of Ronald Brak and his robot prozzies.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Getting material down to earth shouldn't be a problem, or expensive. Wrap your material with iron and shoot it down to a target area with a railgun. If the individual 'pellets' were fairly small, say a foot in diameter, they wouldn't cause any real damage in an empty area. If some iron burns away on re-entry it's not a big loss. With, say, a six inch core of gold or platinum and several 'pellets' per minute, you'd be sending a lot of dollars down. Just dig them out when you're done with a 'run' of pellets. White Sands or the Great Salt Desert would make fine target areas.

At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Yuri said...

Once I read about "beaming huge amount of energy down to earth", I'm starting to doubt that people really understand what they talking about.

Yes, you can use, say, microwaves to transfer petawatts of energy down to a receivers in a some desert. What if you miss and hit Beijing instead of receiver in Gobi desert?

Another thing. Every watt of used electrical energy ends up with a watt of heat, released into the atmosphere. How you will remove this heat (keeping in mind that everyone and their stepmother now crying about global warming)?

Yes, there is huge amount of metals in readily available very low grade ores right on Earth. But if you'll plan to extract them, take environmental costs into account. It will rise even faster that space transportation costs will drop.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger phys101 said...

Skeptics have it easy. They can exercise a total lack of ingenuity or original thought and make it sound like anything new is a bad idea. They feel no need to justify any claim as long as it seems to hold true today without any advancements being assumed.
But advancement is exactly the name of the game when it comes to future speculation. So what are the real limits set by the science within which we can make a more efficient space system. I'll use just one example, the cost of export from a gravity well.
Right now, we use rockets which expend the vast majority of their fuel lifting the rest of the fuel it starts off with. This has been a ridiculous waste. Let's assume that we get away from rockets and push the limits. What is the true energy cost of lifting mass. Well the straightforward physics tells you the answer is mMG/R. So being naive, we say that getting into space has this inherent energy cost setting the lower limit. We would still be able to lower launch costs by many orders of magnitude if we could use some means (space elevator?) to lift material into space. But is that limit even the last word?
No, it's not. If I wanted to design an elevator system to lift people into a skyscraper with minimal energy I would start by utilizing counterweights so that the weight being lifted against gravity was offset by the weight being lowered. Then it would take no more energy to move things vertically than it does to move them horizontally. There is no theoretical inherent cost in lifting mass out of a gravity well, as long as you're willing to also lower an equal mass into the gravity well.
That's all well and good to theorize, but what exactly would we want to 'drop' into earth's gravity well and what would we lift? The most obvious answer is that we would be trading low tech raw materials like those asteroid metals for both people and high tech equipment and supplies for the space industry. In this way, we would actually derive two benefits from the asteroid material. There is the intrinsic value of the metals, and the gravitational potential to be gained by lowering it down.
Now I can just hear the skeptic groaning oh, you're talking about using that ridiculous space elevator idea again. Actually, I find the traditional space elevator notion to be totally impractical and the material requirements necessary to build it, far too ambitious. If we had materials with a fraction of the strength to weight ratio of material needed for that system, i can think of far more practical uses for the material.
I do not pretend to have a fully designed system in mind, but given the basic notion of lowering material from orbit while lifting others up, here's a first suggestion, one already explored by the Southwest Space Research Institute. Why not use a tethered 'slingshot' type of mechanism. Allow the falling asteroid chunk (perhaps 100 tons worth at a time) to spin up a tethered system, turning some of it's downward momentum into angular momentum. At the other end of the tether you have the payload you want delivered to space, which spins up with the system. You then launch that payload upward, trading angular momentum of the system for the needed upward momentum.
The truth is, we have barely begun to speculate about what we could achieve in space travel in terms of efficiencies. We certainly don't need skeptics telling us it's all hopeless before we even look at the possibilities.

At 12:08 AM, Blogger spacepioneerdude said...

If you could get a medium sized asteroid spinning like a football, you could attach facilities and have artificial gravity while you mine away. Rockets or engines or sails keep the asteroid spinning.

At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who cares what it costs. what will happen to the earths rotation when they start adding all that wieght to the earth

At 8:09 PM, Blogger Ronald Brak said...

Asteroids have been hitting the earth for a long time and its rotation is still doing okay, so I don't think we need to worry to about that.

At 2:14 AM, Blogger Jim Marven said...

What are some interesting facts about the element "platinum"?
silver extraction


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