Will space mining become a reality?

Planetary Resources to Soviet meteor diamonds and beyond.

As US presidential candidates drum up support in their race for the White House, scientists are also working against the clock to get space mining on the agenda before the 2014 budget plan takes off.

This month, four entrepreneurs made their pitches at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2012 conference, Clint Eastwood-style.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney attended the event, so space panelists addressed two empty chairs with their ideas, paying tribute to Eastwood’s "invisible Obama" act at the Republican national convention. The delegates poked fun at the candidates but were deadly serious about space-age ideas.

The buzz really started in April, with the arrival of Planetary Resources (PR) – a new venture made up of the Nasa scientists Chris Lewicki and Tom Jones and the space entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson – which hopes to mine near-earth asteroids within ten years.

PR’s timing couldn’t be better. Not since the early space missions have "interplanetary exploration", "asteroids" and all things Martian been household buzzwords. It's all thanks to Nasa’s Mars rover Curiosity, which, as I write, is unlocking the geological secrets of a pyramid-shaped rock named Jake Matijevic.

As if this wasn’t exciting enough, the world was recently given a glimpse of the treasure troves we could find orbiting in space and right here on earth.

Russia recently revealed that the crater of a meteorite that landed in Siberia 35 million years ago, contains trillions of carats of rare diamonds. The Soviet government discovered the deposit in 1970s but it’s only now that documents have been disclosed revealing the true extent of the diamond hoard, which scientists say could supply the entire world for 3,000 years.

The growing interest in space mining is understandable. Based on known reserves on earth and growing consumption in developing countries, it is estimated that key elements such as gold and platinum, essential for modern industries, could be exhausted within 60 years. Yet with analysts claiming that mining in space is not economically feasible, are the scientists' ideas a little starry-eyed?

Due to Nasa’s tightening budget, just $800m is currently available to bring rock samples from Mars back to earth, not a substantial amount considering an upcoming mission to return just two ounces of material from an asteroid will cost $1bn.

As for PR, this company has the financial backing of the Google billionaires Eric Schmidt and Larry Page but how much of a profit can be made from mining platinum and gold, valued at about $1,600 an ounce, when logistical costs are so high?

The 100km Popigai meteorite crater found in Siberia is said to contain diamonds that are two times harder than regular ones but these resources can only be used for industrial use, not jewellery. Currently, the cost of mining far outweighs the asking price for industrial diamonds and profits can only be made from selling gemstone diamonds. The market already has a more easily accessible substitute for this material: lab-grown industrial diamonds.

The world, it seems, is stuck in a catch-22 situation – it needs money to fund mining and it need mining to make money. The question is, should scientists, entrepreneurs and governments wait until earth’s reserves run out or take a giant leap of faith?

Sarah Blackman is the energy features writer for the NRI Digital network.

Back to mine: space mining in the 1981 film Outland. Credit: a production still from Warner

Sarah Blackman is the energy features writer for the NRI Digital network.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation