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What if / Newsletter of 7 Octobre 2019

What if in future ... we used asteroids to make our batteries?


“Copper gone by 2050”, “silver deposits depleted by 2029” ... the media and various stakeholders have regularly issued alarmist warnings about the scarcity - or even total disappearance - of raw materials in the near future, mostly involving metals. The latest comes as car manufacturer


“Copper gone by 2050”, “silver deposits depleted by 2029” ... the media and various stakeholders have regularly issued alarmist warnings about the scarcity - or even total disappearance - of raw materials in the near future, mostly involving metals. The latest comes as car manufacturer. Tesla’s head of supply warned of the risk of an imminent shortage of the materials needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.

 

So, is this a myth or reality? It’s difficult to assess the risks, and even harder to date them with any real certainty, as the parameters involved are numerous - physical, technical, social, economic and political. But while some are looking to the availability of resources on Earth, others are setting their sights on the heavens. And particularly on asteroids, reputed to be bursting at the seams with precious minerals. That brings into focus the prospect of almost infinite resources, especially when we know that some 700,000 asteroids have already been identified. 


The first asteroid mining companies

There’s been enough speculation to create a great deal of attention and a real shake up the international treaties that govern international space law. Particularly the Space Treaty, signed in 1967 during the Cold War, which established the principle of the non-appropriation of the moon and other celestial bodies. The United States kicked things off in 2015 as it voted on the Space Act, an American law favouring “the right of the American people to undertake in the exploration and commercial exploitation of space resources”, excluding any forms of extra-terrestrial life. 

 

This was an opening move received enthusiastically by the still embryonic and little known industry of the “space economy”. The sector first took off in the 2010s, with the emergence of the first companies specialising in mining asteroids, in particular, with America’s Planetary Resources(2010), which counts Larry Page, the founder of Google, among its investors, as well as the Luxembourg-based firm Deep Space Industries(2013). More recently of note, in 2016, is the Asteroid Mining Corporation, whose Scottish director, Mitch Hunter-Scullion, 23, dreams of becoming the world’s first trillionaire through the space economy. 


A prospect still far, far away

Because the profits being talked about are so staggering, the asteroid Psyché 16, for example, found between Mars and Jupiter, is thought to contain a quantity of gold and other precious metals estimated to be worth in the region of 700 quintillion dollars (that’s 700 followed by 30 zeros ...). NASA aims to send a probe in 2022, which could reach the asteroid in 2026. However, the road ahead is still long. John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, doesn’t see the first asteroid mining “proof of concept” coming about within the next 25 years, nor any real commercial start-up within the next fifty. 

 

Not to mention the many debates that will certainly surround any such developments. Amongst scientists, voices are already being raised against the risks associated with exploiting asteroids. How can we ensure operating techniques are safe? Particularly in terms of aerobraking, which consists of a series of shocks to deviate asteroids from their trajectory in order to send them into orbit with the Earth. Others are sceptical about any genuine commercial potential. While some asteroids contain precious metals, most are composed solely of rock. It’s also difficult to evaluate with any certainty the composition of asteroids at such great distances ...

 

Finally, and above all, the industry involves questioning the ability of mankind to consider our own limits and takes us into another dimension entirely of conflict between proponents of reasoned consumption of our resources, adapting to their finality, and proponents of unhindered exploration of possibilities in the name of growth and progress.


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