Rare metal mining goes to new heights (and depths)

The emergence of unique, innovative technologies has enabled mining operators to explore new frontiers in search of rare metals and minerals. Deep below the Earth’s surface (and below the ocean’s floor) lie vast reserves of gold, diamonds, copper, nickel, and other precious metals that could be mined and refined for commercial use. Now, these operators have a way of reaching them.

Even outer space presents an opportunity to capture those highly sought-after elements. In the not-so-distant future, mining operations will no longer be confined to Planet Earth — that is, if the innovative techniques currently pioneered by cutting-edge companies prove successful.

Treasure Troves in the Deep Blue Sea

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the ocean’s floor harbors enough gold ore to supply each of this planet’s seven billion residents with nine pounds of the material. Considering that the price of gold currently hovers around $1,200 per ounce, you can do the math and figure out that the dollar value of that reserve is immense. Other valuable metals can be found along the ocean’s floor as well, including cobalt, which is instrumental in the manufacturing of computers and cellphones.

Accessing those rare metals and minerals is no easy task, however. Undersea mining operators face extreme ocean temperatures and a highly pressurized environment. Nonetheless, innovative deep-sea mining techniques that rely on heavy machinery are already making waves.

First, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) scour the seafloor and grab samples for testing. Once a mineral-rich site is identified, mining operators use a continuous bucket line system (CLB) to lift the sea sediment up to the ocean’s surface via a conveyor belt. Another technique, known as hydraulic suction, draws mineral-laden mud up from the ocean’s floor through a pipe. A second pipe then pumps the dirt or tailings back into the sea once the valuable ore has been extracted.

The Australian-Canadian company Nautilus Minerals has built three 220-to-340-ton machines that harvest metals from the ocean’s floor. Two cutting machines grind the surface sediment to a fine texture before a suctioning device funnels the particles to a ship where the water is drained from the rock. Finally, minerals are extracted from the rocks at a concentrator facility.

Digging Deep for Diamonds and Gold

Not only can rare minerals be found beneath the ocean’s surface; scientists now believe that the purest, largest diamonds can be found deep below the Earth’s crust. Last year, a report published in Science Magazine concluded that diamonds larger in size and of distinct purity most likely originally came from deep below the Earth’s surface — between 224 and 466 miles underground, versus the 124-mile depth at which the majority of diamonds originated.

When diamonds form at those extreme depths, they coalesce from pure carbon into a molten mixture of metallic liquid made of iron and nickel, among other elements. The challenge for diamond miners, says Evan Smith of the Gemological Institute of America, is to find the deeply buried geological hotspots where those rare gems sprout up. “There are parts of the deeper Earth that must contain this metallic phase," Smith told IBTimes UK.

Mining operators have already begun to dig deeper for gold. Mponeng, a gold mine in South Africa, stretches 2.5 miles underground to reach ore contained in the Witwatersrand Gold Belt, said to be the world’s largest and richest gold reserve. Some 4,000 miners descend the world’s tallest elevator to chisel away at the mine’s walls, bringing forth 6,400 metric tons of rock daily. Operations at the mine are on target to continue until 2040.

Galactic Gold Mining

Mining needn’t be confined to Earth, however — according to renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, outer space offers a fertile and untapped field of precious metals and minerals. "If you haul an asteroid the size of a house to Earth, it could have more platinum on it than has ever been mined in the history of the world," Tyson said back in 2014. "More gold than has ever been mined in the history of the world."

Several startups in the industry agree with Tyson, and have set their sights on mining asteroids in addition to the moon’s surface. Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Resources are targeting asteroids, while Moon Express plans to sift through lunar dirt to retrieve metals and minerals accumulated from the breakup of millions of asteroids.

Galactic metal mining, however, would require a complex logistical supply chain system that involves finding a site, developing infrastructure, and supporting ongoing mining operations — and unsurprisingly, it isn’t cheap. Deep Space Industries’ CEO Daniel Farber estimates that launching a single spacecraft is the most costly part of the endeavor, totaling $10 million.

If that price tag seems intimidating, just think of the plentiful resources that might found in space and beneath the surface of our own planet — worlds, quite literally, of untapped potential.

Marc Poirier is Midwest Industrial Supply’s Engineering Technology Manager for the Mining group. His primary focus is Mining & Industrial Solutions.