Some Fearing Minerals Shortfall Look to Asteroids, but Miners See Planet as Almost Bottomless Pit
Is the earth running out of minerals? A recent and widely publicized proposal to mine asteroids for nickel, platinum and other key ingredients for metals is based in part on the notion that we face scarcity in the not-too-distant future.
How much is a matter of debate, as is the capacity of sonar, radar and drilling technology to find new resources—which may not match civilization’s ever-growing appetite for metal-based products from replacement knee joints and oil pipes to catalytic converters and iPads.
Investors led by Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page and film director James Cameron in April launched Planetary Resources Inc., based in Bellevue, Wash., with a message that the Earth’s resources could soon fail to meet the technological needs of a population spiraling toward 10 billion.
Caterpillar Inc., one of the world’s largest makers of mining equipment, has already joined with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to design space-mining gear. “We looked at autonomous operations of equipment as being the same type of technology that could be used on the moon as well as in a mining application,” said Michele Blubaugh, manager of Intelligence Technology Services at Caterpillar.
But firms that make their money mining this planet say the Earth is one big, practically inexhaustible mine, with just as many unexplored corners as outer space. “We think there are 10,000 more years of minerals left for civilization,” said Andrew McKenzie, a geologist and BHP Billiton BHP PLC’s chief executive for nonferrous metals. “Civilization will change, of course, and there will be different minerals involved, but 10,000 more years.”
Some minerals are more plentiful and some parts of the world more endowed. The world has plenty of potash—610 years worth, which ensures centuries more of fertilizer-making, and 590 years of known iron-ore reserves, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates. Overall, the earth has about 136 years of copper but just a small proportion of it in Australia, which could supply the planet for only a few years, according to the U.S.G.S.
South America, on the other hand, has roughly half of all copper reserves left for global supply. And those estimates are of what mining companies have concrete plans to get at—numbers that are significantly lower than the colossal quantities of reserves buried throughout the Earth’s crust.
If anyone was interested in sifting the oceans, they could recover 10 million tons of gold, worth over $500 trillion, according to chemists. In the 1920s, German chemist Fritz Haber, a Nobel Prize winner, thought it possible to extract enough gold from oceans to pay his country’s debt after World War I. He was unsuccessful at even convincing governments to try his idea.
“It’s unimaginable to think we’ll need to rely on asteroids from space to supply the Earth with metals,” said Scott McLean, chief executive of HTX Minerals Corp., a Sudbury, Ontario-based mining company. He said the idea is “interesting, it is visionary to think about these things,” but he concludes: “The Earth’s mineral bounty is immense, and it will continue to provide for millennia.”
Chemical elements are everywhere. To determine whether a deposit has enough of a mineral to merit mining, companies use air-based geological mapping and drill for core samples. A deposit worth mining is qualified as a “reserve.” Otherwise, it’s tagged “resource.”
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