Mining Our Way Out of Climate Change

We’ve heard it before. It’s a number that is constantly growing. We use the equivalent of 2.5 Earth’s resources to fuel our society every year (Global Footprint Network, 2016). And since this calculation was made back in 2010, a few things have changed: not only is the population growing at its fastest rate (projected to be closing on 10Bn by 2050 (UNPF, 2016)), but the aspiration of the individual has increased. We want more stuff.

Despite this desire for consumerism, we are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental pressures forced on the natural world by our activities. Climate change is happening – the data are indisputable and the effects already may be snowballing out of control. The overarching solution is to transition to a low-carbon economy, an economy powered by renewable and green technologies. The problem is resourcing this solution.

Mining raw materials from the ground provides part of the solution. However, to create a new mine requires long term, high-risk planning along with a hefty slice of luck. Ireland’s only producing zinc-lead mine, Tara mine near Navan, was discovered in 1970 but wasn’t fully in production until 1990. In addition to the time lag difficulties, the current mining industry is producing to supply the fossil fuel powered economy, i.e. the high-carbon economy. Supply is dominated by bulk commodities of iron and bauxite (aluminium) with other major production in copper, nickel, zinc, chrome and manganese (Fig 1); four of which are mostly combined with iron for various types of steel (USGS, 2016).

Figure 1 - Proportion of primary metal production globally by tonnage (left, total 3.74BnT) and value (USD calculated from Sept 2016 spot price totalling $1.32Tn right), USGS (2016), London Metal Exchange (2016).
Figure 1 – Proportion of primary metal production globally by tonnage (left, total 3.74BnT) and value (USD calculated from Sept 2016 spot price totalling $1.32Tn right), USGS (2016), London Metal Exchange (2016).

In order to shift towards a low-carbon economy, there needs to be massive upscaling in the production of a suite of minor metals:

  • rare earth oxides – catalysts, alloys, magnets (generators)
  • platinum group elements – catalysts, electronics
  • gallium – LED’s, photosensitive electronic circuits, photovolatics
  • indium – flat panel displays (LCD’s), other electronics
  • selenium – metallurgy, photovoltaics, glass (de-greening)
  • tellurium – photovolatics
  • cobalt – superalloys (carbide products), batteries
  • lithium – batteries
  • arsenic/cadmium – alloys

These metals are required in addition to the continuing production of iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, nickel and tin to ensure electricity dependant on renewable energies is workable and on demand when we require (ICMM, 2012).

These minor metals do not form in large easy-to-mine shapes, unlike iron ore, copper and coal. If the metal isn’t contained within a mineral, they often form in localised, narrow systems that are energy-intensive to process (USGS, 2016). This scenario requires more energy to be invested to extract the same amount of material. In the current market, the price of most metals is at record lows and operating cash costs are edging just below the selling price. For example, old lead-acid batteries are $1895/tonne(t) and more recently nickel-cadmium ones are $5327/t. The latest lithium-cobalt batteries at $156500/t are 100 times more expensive than their predecessor (LME, 2016; SMM, 2016) – you could could argue that these new batteries require 100 times the energy to extract if these are the primary commodities of the mine.

Figure 2 – Graph showing fluctuating prices for Al, Cu, Pb, and Zn over the last 35 years.

It’s not just the energy/price of the metal that has to be considered. Globally the largest producer of cobalt is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where political instability sometimes threatens the security of supply. Similarly, 95% of rare earth oxides are extracted from one mine in China (Bayan Obo, Inner Mongolia, Fig 3), and Chinese production also dominates the gallium and indium markets (USGS, 2016). This single-source supply gives governments power to reduce global supply through export restrictions, putting pressure on price, manufacturers and the demand of downstream products.

Figure 3 - Google earth view of the source of 95% of the world’s rare earth oxide production, Bayan Obo, China.
Figure 3 – Google earth view of the source of 95% of the world’s rare earth oxide production, Bayan Obo, China.

Tesla are aggressively expanding the electric vehicle market at affordable prices and aim to produce enough batteries to power 500,000 electric cars by 2020 (Tesla, 2016). This goal requires the equivalent of the global supply of lithium in 2013 and they’re not the only car manufacturer constructing gigafactories. We are facing a lithium shortage. But it’s not a case of we don’t have enough in the ground, it is the lead time to production (5-10 years from discovery) that will mean miners are scrambling to keep up with demand.

On top of that, all the low-carbon products (electric cars, wind turbines, solar cells, etc.) are actually going to be produced by the high-carbon industrywhere the full environmental payback of the downstream products is not guaranteed.

Can we find another “Earth” to offset some of this stress?

Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are two private companies attempting to achieve this by proposing to mine metal-rich asteroids (M-type) left over from the cores of smashed up planets from the early solar system drifting around in the asteroid belt. These asteroids are predominantly made up of aluminium, titanium, manganese and iron with concentrations of cobalt, nickel, molybdenum, silver, indium, tungsten, gold and platinum group elements – all in concentrations that terrestrial-based prospectors dream about! All you need to do is locate one of the asteroids, send a spacecraft to bring it back to Earth or lunar orbit, extract the metal in zero-gravity, and either return products to Earth or supply orbital-manufacturing facilities (Metzger, 2016).

The biggest problem is cost, not the day-to-day running costs as the operational cost of mining asteroids would be relatively lower than terrestrial mines, but the spacecraft and their launching costs would be significant. NASA estimated the cost of a single shuttle launch is between $0.45 – 1.3 Bn. The shuttle would carry 25T of asteroid material into low earth orbit (LEO, 160-2000km above surface) with 7 astronauts on-board (NASA, 2012), which would work out at $18000-52000/kg for cargo costs. However, spaceflight has become increasingly commercialised over the last 5 years with a number of private companies emerging with the ability to launch spacecraft.

Both Blue Origin (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) and SpaceX (ex-Paypal inventor and Tesla pioneer, Elon Musk) have developed technologies that allow the rockets to lift-off, re-enter and land softly (without damage), allowing the infrastructure to be reusable. The SpaceX Falcon 9 costs $70M and can move 22.8T into low earth orbit for $3200/kg. But they have plans to reduce those costs, once full reusability is realised, to below $500/kg (SpaceX, (2016). This isn’t unreasonable considering that a courier can charge $50-$100 to ship a kilo across Earth’s surface! As an aside, SpaceX does have a final goal of colonising Mars and the same rocket would take 4T there, with Moon Express and a Russia-ESA collaboration planning to send prospecting equipment to the moon. Field work anyone?

A single asteroid 80m in diameter holds as much contained metal value as the world’s richest metal mine.  Bingham Canyon, Utah, has a full resource of $2.38Tn, yet is 30 times wider than any metal-rich asteroid (Fig 4). There is limited environmental impact (even the rocket fuel exhaust is water), which might be able to offset otherwise negative environmental consequences on Earth, lead to new technologies, provide the opportunity for innovative science, and all without negative social impact or threatening political upheaval. There is a win-win opportunity to be had for those willing to take the risk.

Figure 4 – Bingham Canyon Mine with an asteroid of the same contained-metal value superimposed to scale.
Figure 4 – Bingham Canyon Mine with an asteroid of the same contained-metal value superimposed to scale.

For such a venture to come to fruition, a partnership is needed between national space agencies, the commercial space launchers, and existing terrestrial-based mining companies. Last year an environmental group was formed to lobby for increased funding into renewable energy technologies. The Global Apollo Program ironically shares a name with another inspiring program that, had it not been scrapped, we could already have overcome some significant hurdles.

If I had to bet where big problem-solving leaps will arise, mine would be on the final frontier.

By Oakley Turner, iCRAG postgraduate student, Trinity College Dublin.

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– US Geological Survey, 2016. Mineral Commodity Summaries, s.l.: US Department of the Interior.


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