Mining in a decade?

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Maybe, but there are big hurdles and companies need to show more interest, study finds

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Canada’s expertise in mining under harsh conditions should make it a leader in resource development on the moon, according to a report by the Canadian Space Agency.

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But there is a problem: getting Canadian mining companies interested.

“The two mining and space industries have no idea how to talk to each other,” said Sean Mitra, co-founder of Lunar Water Supply Company, a Calgary-based startup that hopes to place itself between the sectors. as an interpreter and integrator. .

With experience working in cold and remote places, Canada’s mining industry is one of the best equipped on Earth to translate its expertise into a presence on the moon.

But a federal report found them timidly interested at best, and other countries are well ahead of removing legal hurdles.

The consultants’ report is titled Economics of Space Resources Utilization Study (SRU). Dated April 16, it was prepared by Euroconsult and released to The Logic, with minor edits, under the Access to Information Act.

Consultants set goals for three phases of moon mining:

– First, to extract water from the ice of the craters of the moon, to transform it into a hydrogen propellant. Water is cheap on Earth, but as expensive as anything to send into space – thousands of dollars per liter. Extracting the water that is already up there for use as fuel would improve the economics of space exploration and travel.

– Second, extract minerals to be used for bases and equipment on the moon.

– Third, and well in the future, mineral resources must be transported to Earth.

“Given the similarity of the activities involved, there is a potential cross between SRU and onshore mining,” the consultants wrote. “As mines become more and more remote, more emphasis is being placed on mineral exploration, infrastructure development and risk reduction practices in the same ways that are needed for SRU.”

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No matter how difficult the conditions on Earth, there is usually air, a familiar gravity, not a lot of cosmic radiation. But Canadian mining companies are more accustomed than most to working in “harsh, confined and inhospitable environments while using technology with minimal impact.”

The consultants found, at best, “a growing curiosity for the mining industry,” whose members see space mining as a business in at least 30 years. But others than the consultants interviewed believe the time horizon is much shorter, potentially as short as 10 years.

The miners the consultants interviewed “have not shown an interest in conducting mining operations in space” and “have difficulty understanding the added value that collaboration with the space industry has for them. Technology transfers could benefit their organization … especially if they (are forced) to invest and devote their own resources.

The Logic wrote to Canadian companies Nutrien (which mines potash), Barrick (gold and copper), Trevali (zinc, lead and silver) and Teck (many metals, plus coal), requesting interviews on the challenge of translating the expertise in mining from Earth to the moon and whether the idea has any appeal. Only Teck responded.

“Teck is focused on implementing a copper growth strategy to meet the growing global demand driven by the low carbon transition,” wrote spokesperson Chris Stannell. “This strategy is anchored in our QB2 copper project in Chile, which is expected to double our consolidated copper production by 2023.”

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Established miners believe any space project would be just too risky, Mitra said. “They don’t know how to get into space, they don’t know what the operational requirements are. They don’t want to have to manage the funding.

If a global energy transition were to dry up work in Alberta’s tar sands, we will have expertise to spare, he added.

“This is one of those rare opportunities for all these underemployed and unemployed geologists and engineers to work mostly one-on-one in terms of skills. It’s a very different problem, but we don’t tell them to learn to code; we’re not telling them to choose an entirely different industry.

Meanwhile, space agencies inherently know little about prospecting, mining or processing, Mitra said. The basic idea always seems to involve rovers going from mining sites to depots with blocks of things on their backs, which doesn’t make sense if you’re mining water ice, he said.

“Why would you do that and not fill a pipeline?” For example, that doesn’t make sense to me – there are so many more points of failure on a rover than a pipeline from your extraction point to where you need to go.

Mitra is a lawyer with a dream. At the other end of the continuum is Greg Baiden, former director of mining research at Inco, professor of robotics at Laurentian University and pioneer of ‘telemin’, who now runs Penguin Automated Systems, a robotics company in Sudbury. . He agrees with Mitra on the disconnect between space experts and mining experts.

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“I don’t believe that many agencies like NASA, CSA, and the European Space Agency really understand the economic equations that go with creating this level of off-Earth activity,” Baiden told The Logic.

A commercially viable ice mining operation on the Moon should be on the scale of Inco’s former operation in Sudbury which is now in the hands of global mining giant Vale, he believes.

“The Inco smelter today and all the mines around it are probably something in the order of $ 100 billion, to build a plant of this scale, with ongoing costs of at least $ 1. billion or $ 2 billion a year. When you start to look at mining companies, this is all a lot more important than any mining company in Canada is able to support, and it’s much bigger than any international company is able to support today. , including large ones.

The consultation report makes it clear that governments may be needed less later, but they will have to plan and pay for the first moon job; finances are just too terrifying otherwise, and, as Baiden put it, “The mining industry is a profit-seeking industry.

But he sees a business case for mining companies to at least get involved: The technologies we would develop for the Moon could be used on the Earth’s seabed.

“I have seen deposits under the oceans which are huge, so we don’t have to go looking for minerals out of the Earth,” he said.

Nonetheless, the idea that the moon is a technological crossing point on the way to the earth’s seabed is a tough sell. Consultants say Canadian mining companies want to be “the first to be second” in new things. Harnessing the moon is a first-to-be business.

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Last December, NASA announced agreements with several companies, all active in the lunar rover business, not resource extraction, to provide it with samples of lunar dust and rock.

One of the reasons for these deals is simply to establish that, legally, you can mine the moon. The United States passed a law in 2015 officially authorizing it (as did Japan and Luxembourg), but it has yet to be done commercially. NASA contracts are supposed to set a precedent.

This raises another obstacle for Canadian businesses: Canada does not have such a law. In 2020, Canada signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for “the civilian exploration and use of the moon, Mars, comets and asteroids for peaceful purposes” that explicitly authorize mining of the moon, but did not transform them into national legislation.

“This, at least to me, really sucks that we have to talk to a lot of investors and the question always comes up, ‘Well, is that even legal?’ And I have to say, ‘Well, yeah, America and Europe, but not Canada,’ ”Mitra said.

As part of a national space strategy released in 2019, the Liberal government promised to review and modernize the regulatory framework for the space industry.

During the consultations that ended last March, the CSA subsequently reported, participants strongly supported the idea of ​​Canadian legislation authorizing and setting limits on the use of space resources and stressed that the time might be short.

“The feedback received during the consultation will be used to inform Canada’s national and international efforts to develop and strengthen frameworks for space exploration activities,” CSA spokesperson Andrea Matte told The Logic. These include a UN-led process to establish recommendations for a framework, which she said is just beginning.

The Logic is Canada’s premier technology and business newsroom.

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