Off Earth Mining
As history has repeatedly shown, where there are valuable minerals to be unearthed, adventurous humans will arrive in droves - even if it means battling extreme conditions and risking life and limb. So what will happen when the next great "gold rush" in our history is quite literally out of this world? And what kind of technology would be needed for the mining?
Business analysts may poke fun at the "impossibly" expensive cost of mining nearby celestial bodies such as asteroids, or even the moon, but these pursuits are not beyond the realm of possibility. Returning to the moon for the purposes of mining will require new technologies and new ways of thinking, and this extends to the conventional business model. We cannot write these pursuits off based on high cost alone, especially given the hidden treasures to be found. Demand for "rare-earth" minerals (which are used in a range of technologies) is rising sharply, but their supply is extremely limited.
While most people have never heard the exotic names Yttrium, Lanthanum, and Samarium, these rare-earths are increasingly critical in the making of high-tech products with both civilian and military applications. Technologies ranging from tablets to missiles to wind turbines all require these valuable minerals, all of which are available in abundance on the moon. Helium-3 (He-3), a non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel, considered by some to be the safe energy source of the future, is also abundant on the moon. It is presently available on Earth but costs approximately A$5,000 per litre and the energy required for extraction and processing exceeds the energy that can be gained from the fusion reactor.
In other words, it's not economically viable. But easy access to more plentiful reserves will change this equation. While each of these minerals alone might not provide a viable return-on-investment (ROI) their unique distribution on the lunar surface creates the opportunity to "split-the-cost". In other words, if designed properly, many rare-earth minerals and He-3 could be mined with the same equipment, at the same location using the same "Earth-to-Moon" shuttle - a commercial vehicle that could ferry materials back down to Earth.
The race is on to mine the moon - and UNSW researchers have figured out how to do it and how to build there.
PhD topics in this field are available with ACSER, click here for the list of topics.
There are currently several students undertaking PhDs in this area: 2 under Mechanical Engineering, 2 under Electrical Engineering and 3 in Mining Engineering.
Off-Earth Mining Activities in 2015
A/Prof Serkan Saydam spent a significant proportion of his sabbatical (Jun-Dec 2015) visiting potential off-earth mining (OEM) collaborators and developing proposals for ongoing research. This is in addition to the work on the project with NASA’s JPL, and the two events; the Future Mining Conference and the Off-Earth Mining Forum.
As part of his travels, Serkan visited Caltech, MIT, Virginia Tech, Univ. Central Florida, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (CA), Kennedy Space Centre (FL), and Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DC). He gave invited talks in the US on “An Integrated Economics Model for ISRU in Support of a Mars Colony” to NASA SSERVI (Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute) CLASS (Centre for Lunar and Asteroid Sciences), Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Washington DC, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, MA, Swamp Works, Kennedy Space Centre, NASA, Orlando, FL. He initiated MOUs with JPL/Caltech, MIT, and UTEP.
He also produced the application “Comprehensive Modelling for Off-Earth Mining Optimization and Resource
Processing” under the STTR scheme, i.e. a Government research grant (CAT 3) with Easi, VTech and NASA KSC
Off-Earth Mining Project: An Integrated Economics Model for ISRU in Support of a Mars Colony
Funded by NASA’s Economic Research for Space Development, Emerging Space Office.
Partners: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The project aimed to develop an integrated set of riskbased financial and technical models to evaluate multiple Off-Earth Mining scenarios. This quantitative, scenariobased tool helps identify combinations of market variables, technical parameters, and policy levers that will enable the expansion of the global economy into the solar system and return economic benefits. As part of the project four models were developed: Mars Colony Architectural Model, Extraction Process Model, Mars Infrastructure and Integrated Logistical Support Model and Economics Integration Model. UNSW Australia’s team was led by A/Prof Saydam, with Prof Dempster, Dr Coulton and Mr Tapia Cortez. The group involved developing multiple optimised mining systems to extract water from the Mars surface.