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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.