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Mining of the future could help spare the planet or ruin it

26 August 2020 7:15 PM

Minerals are synonymous with wealth but they are finite and we need more

The Bronze Age is defined as the period when a metal became central to the progress of humanity. The previous age was the stone age, but about 5 000 years ago we discovered that we could isolate copper and tin and by combining them when molten could create a material that was both strong and could be sharpened to make better cutting tools than you could with stone.

Despite the two metals not being found very close to each other and that tin is quite soft and has a low melting point, when added with copper which was a bit harder and had a much higher melting point the result was material that was much stiffer but that melted at a lower temperature.

Sometimes the rocks containing the metals were on the surface or exposed in a cliff, but soon humans realised that to find more we had to dig holes or tunnels.

The word mine most likely comes from a word meaning tunnel. The other use may seem odd as it describes an explosive, but that too is related as the military tunnels that were dug to go under enemy defences were called mines too, once the military connection was, the idea to place an explosive in the ground and so effectively mine it or create a mine field was not too hard to understand and should you destroy someone's authority we say you undermined them.

5 000 years of ever increasing mining activity with bigger and bigger mines blasting and digging to incredible depths is starting to make the effort to find minerals too expensive. To find more we have begun investigating where they all came from in the first place - the undersea volcanoes that power the tectonic plates.

Deep Sea Mining

image credit: Koelle, Wikipedia

A poly metallic nodule about the size of your fist and millions of years old. Collecting them from the sea floor may be a new source of rare metals.

At these ridges deep under the sea, water mixes with the molten rock dissolving minerals. As the water is expelled by the earth's molten interior it is released as superheated sulphide plumes. When it comes into contact with the freezing cold and incredibly high pressure ocean water, the minerals begin to condense out into clumps of concentrated ore. Over time those ore will grow and be moved hundreds and thousands of kilometres from where they formed, as the land rises and gets deformed the concentration of metals get sandwiched between other rocks to form seams which create most of the mines we have used for the last 5 000 years.

But there is much more to be found still lying on the ocean floor and rather than having to crush a bunch of rock to extract them, they are littered on the ocean floor. At about the size of a small pebble to a tennis ball these poly metallic nodules as they are known may prove to be a much greater source of some of the very rare metals we need for modern industry.

But there is a catch, getting something to collect the nodules at depths of up to 5 km below the surface is as hard as trying to mine up to 4km underground as some of the world's deepest gold mines do in Gauteng.

Besides having to lift the column of water, sea bed and nodules leaves you with a lot of water and sea bed to return to the sea. Dumping that much sediment back onto the surface of the water could damage the surface ecosystems, releasing at lower levels will still have a potentially negative impact. Dredging the ocean floor will also disrupt or not destroy the ecosystem on the ocean floor. They are incredibly fragile with some species likely only occurring in the path of a mining vehicle and many being very slow growing. Everything on the ocean floor happens at a scale that is hard for humans to conceive. Each of the nodules no bigger than your fist have take millions of years to form.

The last consideration is who decides if this may be allowed. Thankfully an international body called the International Seabed Authority. This month these began the process to determine how best to allow the mining or an area between Hawaii and the United States. You might think the Us would have a claim in the area, but as they are not signatories to the agreement don’t have any. Many European nations do as does China which means it is likely the current economic superpowers are likely to maintain that power. Some developing nations have been awarded claims but they will probably sell them on to other nations.

It may be some time before we begin mining the seabeds and while that is being explored we are also exploring the option to mine asteroids. While it may seem even less likely to get that right, the progress for reducing the cost to get probes into space may see it develop quite quickly.

Space mining

One reason to mine in space which may be both asteroids or the moon, would be to allow for the extraction of fuels needed to explore further or send mined material back to Earth. You can imagine that the discussions to determine what would be appropriate for countries and companies to access the resources in space would be, well, a minefield, but impressively the framework for a treaty was initiated in 1967 and now has 110 countries including South Africa that are signatories. The Outer Space Treaty sets out what is and is not allowed in space. Given it was drafted during the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction are not permitted, even though weapons and military operations are. The part that needs some clarification is that all resources are available for exploitation for the benefit of mankind, but how a country or a company may show that their efforts will benefit all mankind might be up for debate.

It is unlikely that should an asteroid be able to supply a fair proportion of a material that is limited on Earth or would be harmful to the environment if it were extracted to Earth that all nations would support extracting it from the asteroid instead.

But just how to ensure it would be sold at a price that does not adversely affect competitors or overly enrich those who mined it is likely to create a major debate about the economic system that should be created for space.

There is still much work to identify which asteroids would be worth mining and the technology and costs to get the mining equipment to space are still a work in progress, there is little doubt that it will only be a question of time before it becomes a reality.

It is a good idea to pursue these options but there is a third option that should be pursued with the same interest.

Recycling the materials we have already mined

We can’t actually destroy the materials we use, but as miners have refined and improved the scale and efficiency for extracting minerals is geared for finding potentially small amounts of minerals from large volumes of material.

A gold mine might typically extract about 10 grams of gold from a ton of ore. That is a ration of about 1 in 100 000.

If you collected the gold from a mobile phone you might get a ratio of 1 in 2 000. You might think mining old phones will be a great business, but this is where the scale and efficiency comes into the picture. A gold mine can process a mind boggling amount of ore to produce a substantial amount of gold from a specific but relatively simple process.

Extracting the gold from the many other minerals in a phone involves a much more complex process to isolate the individual elements and to extract as much gold as one of South Africa gold mines might require over a billion phones a year.

For some minerals we do have a better track record, almost 99% of the lead that is used by industry is recycled, that is an exception though as the principle use is in certain types of batteries and are used in a pure state and are relatively easy to reclaim.

We should be supporting efforts to both reclaim what we can from electronics and other devices that use rare minerals and further the research to do so more economically and safely.

If we then combine sustainable traditional mining with new options in the deep sea and space with recycling approaching 100%, then we may be able to keep the planet habitable even as we begin to explore the rest of our solar system.

This article first appeared on 702 : Mining of the future could help spare the planet or ruin it

26 August 2020 7:15 PM

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