Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air



Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting.
Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author provided

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, The University of Queensland

Last month, scientists uncovered a mineral called Edscottite. Minerals are solid, naturally occurring substances that are not living, such as quartz or haematite. This new mineral was discovered after an examination of the Wedderburn Meteorite, a metallic-looking rock found in Central Victoria back in 1951.

Edscottite is made of iron and carbon, and was likely formed within the core of another planet. It’s a “true” mineral, meaning one which is naturally occurring and formed by geological processes either on Earth or in outer-space.

But while the Wedderburn Meteorite held the first-known discovery of Edscottite, other new mineral discoveries have been made on Earth, of substances formed as a result of human activities such as mining and mineral processing. These are called anthropogenic minerals.

While true minerals comprise the majority of the approximately 5,200 known minerals, there are about 208 human-made minerals which have been approved as minerals by the International Mineralogical Association.

Some are made on purpose and others are by-products. Either way, the ability to manufacture minerals has vast implications for the future of our rapidly growing population.

Modern-day alchemy

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. While governments debate the future of coal-burning power stations, carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. We need innovative strategies to capture it.

Actively manufacturing minerals such as nesquehonite is one possible approach. It has applications in building and construction, and making it requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.




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Nesquehonite occurs naturally when magnesian rocks slowly break down. It has been identified at the Paddy’s River mine in the Australian Capital Territory and locations in New South Wales.

But scientists discovered it can also be made by passing carbon dioxide into an alkaline solution and having it react with magnesium chloride or sodium carbonate/bicarbonate.

This is a growing area of research.

Other synthetic minerals such as hydrotalcite are produced when asbestos tailings passively absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, as discovered by scientists at the Woodsreef asbestos mine in New South Wales.

You could say this is a kind of “modern-day alchemy” which, if taken advantage of, could be an effective way to suck carbon dioxide from the air at a large scale.

Meeting society’s metal demands

Mining and mineral processing is designed to recover metals from ore, which is a natural occurrence of rock or sediment containing sufficient minerals with economically important elements. But through mining and mineral processing, new minerals can also be created.

Smelting is used to produce a range of commodities such as lead, zinc and copper, by heating ore to high temperatures to produce pure metals.

The process also produces a glass-like waste product called slag, which is deposited as molten liquid, resembling lava.

This is a backscattered electron microscope image of historical slag collected from a Rio Tinto mine in Spain.
Image collected by Anita Parbhakar-Fox at the University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Once cooled, the textural and mineralogical similarities between lava and slag are crystal-clear.

Micro-scale inspection shows human-made minerals in slag have a unique ability to accommodate metals into their crystal lattice that would not be possible in nature.

This means metal recovery from mine waste (a potential secondary resource) could be an effective way to supplement society’s growing metal demands. The challenge lies in developing processes which are cost effective.




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Ethically-sourced jewellery

Our increasing knowledge on how to manufacture minerals may also have a major impact on the growing synthetic gem manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the world was awestruck by the engagement ring given to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, valued at about £300,000 (AUD$558,429).

The ring has a 12-carat blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, with a setting made from 18-carat white gold.

Replicas of it have been acquired by people across the globe, but for only a fraction of the price. How?

In 1837, Marc Antoine Gardin demonstrated that sapphires (mineralogically known as corundum or aluminium oxide) can be replicated by reacting metals with other substances such as chromium or boric acid. This produces a range of seemingly identical coloured stones.

On close examination, some properties may vary such as the presence of flaws and air bubbles and the stone’s hardness. But only a gemologist or gem enthusiast would likely notice this.

Diamonds can also be synthetically made, through either a high pressure, high temperature, or chemical vapour deposition process.

Synthetic diamonds have essentially the same chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.
Instytut Fizyki Uniwersytet Kazimierza Wielkiego

Creating synthetic gems is increasingly important as natural stones are becoming more difficult and expensive to source. In some countries, the rights of miners are also violated and this poses ethical concerns.

Medical and industrial applications

Synthetic gems have industrial applications too. They can be used in window manufacturing, semi-conducting circuits and cutting tools.

One example of an entirely manufactured mineral is something called yttrium aluminum garnet (or YAG) which can be used as a laser.

In medicine, these lasers are used to correct glaucoma. In dental surgery, they allow soft gum and tissues to be cut away.

The move to develop new minerals will also support technologies enabling deep space exploration through the creation of ‘quantum materials’.

Quantum materials have unique properties and will help us create a new generation of electronic products, which could have a significant impact on space travel technologies. Maybe this will allow us to one day visit the birthplace of Edscottite?




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In decades to come, the number of human-made minerals is set to increase. And as it does, so too does the opportunity to find new uses for them.

By expanding our ability to manufacture minerals, we could reduce pressure on existing resources and find new ways to tackle global challenges.The Conversation

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Senior Research Fellow in Geometallurgy/Applied Geochemistry, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, Principal Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Space can solve our looming resource crisis – but the space industry itself must be sustainable


Richard Matthews, University of Adelaide

Australia’s space industry is set to grow into a multibillion-dollar sector that could provide tens of thousands of jobs and help replenish the dwindling stocks of precious resources on Earth. But to make sure they don’t flame out prematurely, space companies need to learn some key lessons about sustainability.

Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Often this definition is linked to the economic need for growth. In our context, we link it to the social and material needs of our communities.

We cannot grow without limit. In 1972, the influential report The Limits to Growth argued that if society’s growth continued at projected rates, humans would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” by 2070. Recent research from the University of Melbourne’s sustainability institute updated and reinforced these conclusions.

Our insatiable hunger for resources increases as we continue to strive to improve our way of life. But how does our resource use relate to the space industry?




Read more:
Dig deep: Australia’s mining know-how makes it the perfect $150m partner for NASA’s Moon and Mars shots


There are two ways we could try to avert this forecast collapse: we could change our behaviour from consumption to conservation, or we could find new sources to replenish our stocks of non-renewable resources. Space presents an opportunity to do the latter.

Asteroids provide an almost limitless opportunity to mine rare earth metals such as gold, cobalt, nickle and platinum, as well as the resources required for the future exploration of our solar system, such as water ice. Water ice is crucial to our further exploration efforts as it can be refined into liquid water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.

But for future space missions to top up our dwindling resources on Earth, our space industries themselves must be sustainable. That means building a sustainable culture in these industries as they grow.

How do we measure sustainability?

Triple bottom-line accounting is one of the most common ways to assess the sustainability of a company, based on three crucial areas of impact: social, environmental, and financial. A combined framework can be used to measure performance in these areas.

In 2006, UTS sustainable business researcher Suzanne Benn and her colleagues introduced a method for assessing the corporate sustainability of an organisation in the social and environmental areas. This work was extended in 2014 by her colleague Bruce Perrott to include the financial dimension.

This model allows the assessment of an organisation based on one of six levels of sustainability. The six stages, in order, are: rejection, non-responsiveness, compliance, efficiency, strategic proactivity, and the sustaining corporation.

Sustainability benchmarking the space industry

In my research, which I presented this week at the Australian Space Research Conference in Adelaide, I used these models to assess the sustainability of the American space company SpaceX.

Using freely available information about SpaceX, I benchmarked the company as compliant (level 3 of 6) within the sustainability framework.

While SpaceX has been innovative in designing ways to travel into space, this innovation has not been for environmental reasons. Instead, the company is focused on bringing down the cost of launches.

SpaceX also relies heavily on government contracts. Its profitability has been questioned by several analysts with the capital being raised through the use of loans and the sale of future tickets in the burgeoning space tourism industry. Such a transaction might be seen as an exercise in revenue generation, but accountants would classify such a sale as a liability.

The growing use of forward sales is a growing concern for the industry, with other tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic failing to secure growth. It has been reported that Virgin Galactic will run out of customers by 2023 due to the high costs associated with space travel.




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SpaceX’s culture also rates poorly for sustainability. As at many startups, employees at SpaceX are known to work more than 80 hours a week without taking their mandatory breaks. This problem was the subject of a lawsuit settled in 2017. Such behaviour contravenes Goal 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to achieve “decent work for all”.

What’s next?

Australia is in a unique position. As the newest player in the global space industry, the investment opportunity is big. The federal government predicts that by 2030, the space sector could be a A$12 billion industry employing 20,000 people.

Presentations at the Australian Space Research Conference by the Australian Space Agency made one thing clear: regulation is coming. We can use this to gain a competitive edge.




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By embedding sustainability principles into emerging space startups, we can avoid the economic cost of having to correct bad behaviours later.

We will gain the first-mover advantage on implementing these principles, which will in turn increase investor confidence and improve company valuations.

To ensure that the space sector can last long enough to provide real benefits for Australia and the world, its defining principle must be sustainability.The Conversation

Richard Matthews, Research Associate | Councillor, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dig deep: Australia’s mining know-how makes it the perfect $150m partner for NASA’s Moon and Mars shots


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

In the wake of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s meeting with US President Donald Trump, the Australian government announced on Sunday a commitment of A$150million “into our local businesses and new technologies that will support NASA on its inspirational campaign to return to the Moon and travel to Mars”.

It is unclear at this point where the government intends to spend this money, but there’s no harm in some reflective speculation.




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Because this new commitment is to deep space missions, clearly it is separate from the A$245 million being invested in Australia’s Smartsat Cooperative Research Centre or the A$4.5 million for the Centre for Cubesats, UAVs and their Applications, both of which are generally looking at applications in Earth orbit.

The funding should also be separate from that committed to two Australian Space Agency initiatives: the A$6 million Mission Control Centre for South Australia, and the A$4.5 million Robotics, Automation and Artificial Intelligence Command and Control Centre for Western Australia. Both of these centres could, however, be used in any planned Moon and Mars initiatives.

The funding allocation should also not include the money already committed to space projects by CSIRO under its Space Technology Future Science Platforms initiative.

Where should it be spent?

In thinking about where the money can be spent, it’s worth noting the brief is explicitly to “support NASA”. So, where could Australia help?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, centrepiece of the Artemis mission, will need lots of technical support.
NASA

NASA’s two main lunar initiatives are the Lunar Gateway and Project Artemis, both of which have been mentioned in relation to Australia’s funding pledge. Mars may be the long-term destination, but the Moon is where it’s at right now.

The Lunar Gateway is infrastructure: a spacecraft placed in a halo orbit (always in view of Earth) that is sometimes as close as 3,000km to the Moon’s surface. It will be used as a hub for astronauts, equipment and communications, and a staging post for lunar landings and returns.

Artemis aims to use NASA’s large new rocket, the Space Launch System, to deliver astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the Moon, to the lunar surface by 2024. It will develop a host of new technologies and is openly collaborative.




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One contribution that cannot be ignored in this context is the technology emerging from Australia’s dominant mining industry. The strength in robotics, automation and remote operations has led to the above-mentioned robotics centre being slated for WA. What’s more, the Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth institute, a wide-ranging industry collaboration launched in July, is also likely to be headquartered in WA.

Another area where Australia is developing interesting technology is in optical communications with spacecraft, being driven by research at the Australian National University. At a recent CSIRO workshop to develop “flagship” missions for Australia, the idea of using lasers to beam communications rapidly to the Moon and back was highly rated.

Putting ideas out there

Of the nine possible flagships considered, seven are potentially relevant to the new funding. These include a space weather satellite, an asteroid detection system, a cubesat to Mars, a radiotelescope on the Moon, and a solar sail that could power spacecraft to the Moon. There are plenty of good Australian ideas around.

However, the flagship most closely related to the content of the announcement was a project proposal (disclosure: it’s mine!) that would place an orbiter around the Moon and design a lander/rover to establish our ability to extract water from permanent ice. Water can be used for many things in a settlement, and when split into hydrogen and oxygen it can be used as rocket fuel to move things around, including to Mars.




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All of our research in this area has focused on how this can be done in a commercial way, very much in line with the philosophy of “Space 2.0”. We are putting together a significant team of academics, companies (not just mining and space ones), and agencies to pursue these missions seriously.

There has never been a better time to be working in the space sector in Australia. I and all of my colleagues in the field hope the latest announcement is the next step in establishing the vibrant, sustainable space industry so many in Australia now see as achievable.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison government approves next step towards Adani coal mine


Kevin's Walk on the Wild Side

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government has ticked off on the groundwater management plan for the proposed Adani coal mine, an important but not a final step for the central Queensland project receiving the go-ahead.

The decision, taken by Environment Minister Melissa Price, comes after intense pressure from Queensland Liberal National Party members, including a threat by senator James McGrath to publicly call for Price’s resignation if she failed to treat the Adani project fairly.




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But the Adani decision will not help Liberals fighting seats in the south, with strong anti-Adani campaigns in some key electorates.

Price said in a statement on Tuesday: “CSIRO and Geoscience Australia have independently assessed the groundwater management plans for the Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Infrastructure project”, and both had confirmed the revised plans…

View original post 660 more words

Grattan on Friday: The Coalition is trapped in its coal minefield


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley was apoplectic. Home Affairs Minister
Peter Dutton, one of Hadley’s favourites, who has a regular spot on his 2GB program, had just committed blasphemy.

Dutton said he didn’t believe in the government building a new
coal-fired power station. Hadley couldn’t credit what he was hearing. “You’re toeing the [Morrison] company line”, he said accusingly.

It’s another story with Dutton’s cabinet colleague and fellow
Queenslander, Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who is part of the
Queensland Nationals’ push for support for a new power station in that state.

“Studies have come back always saying that a HELE [high-efficiency, low-emissions] or a new coal-fired power station would make a lot of sense in North Queensland,” Canavan said this week.

The two ministers’ divergent views are not surprising on the basis of where they come from. In Brisbane voters tend to share similar opinions on climate change and coal to those in the southern capitals – it’s the regions where support for coal is stronger.

What’s surprising is how the rifts at the government’s highest levels are being exposed. In these desperate days, it is every minister, every government backbencher, and each part, or sub-part, of the Coalition for themselves.

Never mind cabinet solidarity, or Coalition unity.

The most spectacular outbreak came this week from Barnaby Joyce,
declaring himself the “elected deputy prime minister” and pressing the government for a strongly pro-coal stand.

It was a slap at besieged Nationals leader Michael McCormack, after rumourmongering that McCormack might be replaced even before the election. Predictably, the NSW Nationals, fighting a difficult state election, were furious.

The Joyce outbreak was further evidence that the federal Nationals are a mess, over leadership and electorally. They have a party room of 22 – there are fears they could lose up to four House of Representatives seats as well as going down two in the Senate.




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(However it’s not all gloom in the Nationals – at the election they will gain three new women, two in the Senate – Susan McDonald from Queensland and Sam McMahon from the Northern Territory – and Anne Webster in the Victorian seat of Mallee. Whatever happens to the party’s numbers overall, the women will go from two to four or five, depending on the fate of Michelle Landry, who holds the marginal seat of Capricornia. The Nationals’ NSW Senate candidate is also a woman but is unlikely to be elected.)

By mid week Joyce was back in his box, stressing that McCormack would take the party to the election. But he was still in the coal advocacy vanguard.

The coal debate and the assertiveness of the Queensland Nationals
smoked out a clutch of Liberal moderates, who question spending
government money on coal projects (although there is some confusion between building power stations and underwriting ventures).




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The government’s policy is for underwriting “firm power” projects, on a technology-neutral basis, if they stack up commercially.

The marauding Nationals were derisive of moderate Liberals trying to protect their seats. “Trendy inner-city Liberals who want to oppose coal and the jobs it creates should consider joining the Greens,” Queensland National George Christensen said tartly on Facebook.

It was a rare appearance by the moderates, who have made a poor
showing over the last few years, True, some were crucial in achieving the same-sex marriage reform. But in general they’ve failed to push back against the right’s tightening ideological grip on the Liberal party, and the government has suffered as a result.

The week highlighted, yet again, that instead of a credible energy
policy, the government has only confusion and black holes.

With his recent announcements, Morrison has been trying to show he’s heard the electorate on climate change. But actually, these were mostly extensions of what had been done or proposed.

The Abbott government’s emissions reduction fund (renamed) is getting an injection, given it would soon be close to exhausted. And the Snowy pumped hydro scheme, announced by Malcolm Turnbull, has received the go-ahead. Didn’t we expect that? There was also modest support for a new inter-connector to transmit Tasmanian hydro power to Victoria.

The government can’t get its “big stick” legislation – aimed at
recalcitrant power companies – through parliament. It will take it to the election. But who knows what its future would be in the unlikely event of a re-elected Coalition government? It would face Senate hurdles and anyway “free market” Liberals don’t like it.

And then we come to the underwriting initiative. The government has 66 submissions seeking support, 10 of which have “identified coal as a source of generation”.

Sources say it is hoped to announce backing for some projects before the election. But this will be fraught, internally and externally, for the government.

One source hinted one project might involve coal. Even if this is
true, it won’t satisfy the Coalition’s coal spruikers, deeply unhappy that Morrison has flagged there won’t be support for a Queensland coal-fired power station. (The Queenslanders liken Morrison’s cooling on coal to Kevin Rudd’s 2010 back off from his emissions trading scheme.)

On the other hand, underwriting of any coal project would alarm
Liberals in the so-called “leafy-suburbs” electorates.

Given the proximity to the election, the government could do little more than give promises to particular projects. There is also the risk of blow back from those whose bids are unsuccessful.

There would be no obligation on a Labor government to honour any
commitments, because formal agreements would not have been finalised.

Meanwhile the government is trying to promote a scare against Labor’s climate policy, still to be fully outlined, which includes reducing emissions by an ambitious 45% by 2030 (compared with the government’s pledge of 26-28%).

But unlike, for example, the scare over the ALP’s franking credits
policy (dubbed by the government a “retirement tax”), this scare is much harder to run, except in specific regional areas.

The zeitgeist is in Labor’s favour on the climate issue, not least
after sweltering summer days and bushfires.

The public have a great deal of faith in renewables – in focus groups people don’t just like them, they romanticise them.

It seems the government can’t take a trick on climate and energy
policy – even the school children are reminding it of that.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia: well placed to join the Moon mining race … or is it?



File 20190214 1726 alb497.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Moon could be mined for water.
NASA/JPL

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

It’s 50 years since man first stepped on the Moon. Now the focus is on going back to our nearest orbiting neighbour – not to leave footprints, but to mine the place.

Australia has a well-earned reputation as a mining nation. We are home to some of the largest mining companies (such as Vale, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and BHP), some of the best mine automation, and some of the best mining researchers.




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But do we have the drive and determination to be part of any mining exploration of the Moon?

To the Moon

As far as space goes, the Moon is sexy again. Within the past three months:

  • the Chinese landed a rover on the Moon’s far side

  • NASA announced it is partnering with nine companies to deliver payloads to the Moon, consistent with its new push for more Moon missions

  • the Moon Race competition has been announced, looking at entries in four themes: manufacturing, energy, resources, biology

  • the European Space Agency (ESA) announced its interest in mining the Moon for water

  • a US collaborative study was released about commercial exploitation of water from the Moon.

Not to be outdone, there is an Australian angle. We at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) announced our Wilde mission to extract water from the shaded craters at the Moon’s poles.

Australian interests

The Australian angle is important. With the establishment of Australia’s Space Agency, there is a need for us to try to establish niches in space, and it makes sense to exploit our strengths in mining to do so.

This is consistent with one of the agency’s priorities of:

… developing a strategy to position Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities.

As the agency’s chief executive Megan Clark told the subscription newsletter Space and Satellite AU earlier this month:

Rio Tinto is developing autonomous drilling and that’s the sort of thing you will need to do on Mars and on the Moon. While we’re drilling for iron ore in the Pilbara, on the Moon they might be looking for basic resources to survive like soils, water and oxygen.

The CSIRO has also put space resource utilisation into its space road map (which can be downloaded here). At each of the two most recent CSIRO Space 2.0 workshops, the attendees voted space resource utilisation (off-Earth mining) to be the most promising opportunity discussed.

The ultimate aim of space mining is to exploit asteroids, the most valuable – known as 511 Davida – is estimated to be worth US$27 quintillion (that’s or 27×1018 or 27 million million million dollars). Another estimate puts that value closer to US$1 trillion, which is still a lot of potential earning.

Risky business

The opportunities are enormous, but the risks are high too – risks with which mining companies are currently not familiar. The high-level processes are familiar such as exploration (prospecting), mining methods, processing, transportation, but the specifics of doing those things in such challenging conditions – vacuum, microgravity, far from Earth, and so on – are not.

The research we are proposing for the Wilde project aims to start chipping away at reducing those perceived risks, to the point where big miners are more comfortable to invest.

One of the important risks in any mining is the legal framework. Two international treaties apply quite specifically in this case: the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (ratified by 107 countries and signed by a further 23) and the Moon Agreement (or Moon Treaty, ratified by 18 and signed by a further four) of 1979. Australia has ratified both.

When it comes to trying to determine from these treaties whether space mining is allowed, there are two problems.

First, the treaties were drafted at a time when the problems they were trying to avoid were geopolitical. Space activity was considered to be the realm of nation states and they wanted celestial bodies not to be considered property of any nation states.

Second, commercial exploitation of resources is never explicitly mentioned. (A third problem could be that the treaties have never been tested in court.)

This creates a situation in which the interpretation of the treaties can lead to strong support to both sides of the argument. For instance, Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty says:

The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

This could preclude commercial development.

But the same article also states:

Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

This could enshrine the right to use those same resources.

For all humanity

There are similar disputes about what exactly was meant when other articles in that treaty refer to sovereignty, appropriation, exploration and use.

The Moon Treaty deals with scientific and non-scientific use of space resources. Article 11 states that the Moon and other celestial bodies and their resources are the common heritage of all mankind (a less gender-specific phrase would be “all humanity”), and that the exploitation of resources would be governed by an international regime, not defined in the treaty. It also dictates “an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources”.




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On the face of it, this may appear to put signatories to this agreement at a disadvantage, by constraining them as to what they can do.

Other global commons such as the high seas, Antarctica and geostationary orbit are well regulated by comparison, and given that the Moon Treaty envisages that “regime” of rules, then it may be time to define that regime, and, as a Treaty signatory with an interest in space resources, Australia has the motivation to lead that discussion.

How that initiative will evolve will depend on various factors, but the next time it gets a public airing, at the Off-Earth Mining Forum in November, we hope to have made significant progress.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Biomining the elements of the future



File 20180124 72597 1twk9y1.png?ixlib=rb 1.1

Joey Kyber/Pixels, CC BY-SA

Marcos Voutsinos, University of Melbourne

Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal from ore, old mobile phones and hard drives.

It sounds futuristic, but it’s currently used to produce about 5% of the world’s gold and 20% of the world’s copper. It’s also used to a lesser extent to extract nickel, zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements. But perhaps it’s most exciting potential is extracting rare earth elements, which are crucial in everything from mobile phones to renewable energy technology.




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The Mary Kathleen mine, an exhausted uranium mine in northwest Queensland, contains an estimated A$4 billion in rare earth elements. Biomining offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for getting it out.

Biomining is so versatile that it can be used on other planetary bodies. Bioleaching studies on the international space station have shown microorganisms from extreme environments on Earth can leach a large variety of important minerals and metals from rocks when exposed to the cold, heat, radiation and vacuum of space.

Some scientists even believe we cannot colonise other planets without the help of biomining technologies.

How does it work?

Microorgaisms in tanks leach the minerals from any source material.
Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Biomining takes place within large, closed, stirred-tank reactors (bioreactors). These devices generally contain water, microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, or fungi), ore material, and a source of energy for the microbes.

The source of energy required depends on the specific microbe necessary for the job. For example, gold and copper are biologically “leached” from sulfidic ores using microorganisms that can derive energy from inorganic sources, via the oxidation of sulfur and iron.

However, rare earth elements are bioleached from non-sulfidic ores using microorganisms that require an organic carbon source, because these ores do not contain a usable energy source. In this case, sugars are added to allow the microbes to grow.

All living organisms need metals to carry out basic enzyme reactions. Humans get their metals from the trace concentrations in their food. Microbes, however, obtain metals by dissolving them from the minerals in their environment. They do this by producing organic acids and metal-binding compounds. Scientists exploit these traits by mixing microbes in solution with ores and collecting the metal as it floats to the top.

The temperature, sugars, the rate at which the tank is stirred, acidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels all need to be monitored and fine-tuned to provide optimal working conditions

The benefits of biomining

Traditional mining methods require harsh chemicals, lots of energy and produce many pollutants. In contrast, biomining uses little energy and produces few microbial by-products such as organic acids and gases.

Because it’s cheap and simple, biomining can effectively exploit low grade sources of metals (such as mine tailings) that would otherwise be uneconomical using traditional methods.

Countries are increasingly turning to biomining such as Finland, Chile and Uganda. Chile has exhausted much of its copper rich ores and now utilises biomining, while Uganda has been extracting cobalt from copper mine tailings for over a decade.




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Why do we need rare earth elements?

The rare earth elements include the group of 15 lanthanides near the bottom of the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium. They are widely used in just about all electronics and are increasingly sought after by the electric vehicle and renewable energy industries.

The unique atomic properties of these elements make them useful as magnets and phosphors. They’re used as strong lightweight magnets in electric vehicles, wind turbines, hard disc drives, medical equipment and as phosphors in energy efficiency lighting and in the LEDs of mobile phones, televisions and laptops.

Despite their name, rare earth elements are not rare and some are in fact more abundant than copper, nickel and lead in the Earth’s crust. However, unlike these primary metals which form ores (a naturally occurring mineral or rock from which a useful substance can be easily extracted), rare earth elements are widely dispersed. Thus to be economically feasible they are generally mined as secondary products alongside primary metals such as iron and copper.

Over 90% of the world’s rare earth elements come from China where production monopolies, trade restrictions and illegal mining have caused prices to fluctuate dramatically over the years.

Most renewable energy technologies depend on rare earth metals.
Pixabay

Reports from the US Department of Energy, European Union, and the US intelligence commission have labelled several rare earth elements as critical materials, based on their importance to clean energy, high supply risk, and lack of substitutes.

These reports encourage research and development into alternative mining methods such as biomining as a potential mitigation strategy.

Heeding these calls, laboratories in Curtin, and Berkeley Universities have used microorganisms to dissolve common rare-earth-element-bearing minerals. These pilot scale studies have shown promising results, with extraction rates growing closer to those of conventional mining methods.




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Curious Kids: How do scientists work out how old the Earth is?


Because most electronics have a notoriously short lifespan and poor recyclability, laboratories are experimenting with “urban” biomining. For example, bioleaching studies have seen success in extracting rare earth elements from the phosphor powder lining fluorescent globes, and the use of microorganisms to recycle rare earth elements from electronic wastes such as hard drive magnets.

The ConversationThe rare earth elements are critical for the future of our technology. Biomining offers a way to obtain these valuable resources in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically feasible.

Marcos Voutsinos, PhD Candidate, Geomicrobiology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Queensland election outcome is a death knell for Adani’s coal mine


John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The coal mine proposed for Queensland’s Galilee Basin by Indian mining giant Adani has been a moveable feast, with many stories about its scale, purpose, financing, job prospects, and commerciality. The prospect of a return of the Palaszczuk government in Queensland is effectively the death knell for the project.

Labor has so pledged to block a concessional, taxpayer-funded loan, while embracing a significantly expanded program to develop regional solar thermal power in the state.

It seems the proposal has been reduced in scale, with the original A$21 billion plan reined back to just its initial stage, costing about A$5 billion. Its purpose has changed from exporting coal to India’s Adani Power, to now possibly shipping coal to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its job prospects are confusing with early estimates well in excess of 10,000, down more recently to fewer than 1,500, after Adani admitted that the mine’s operations will be heavily automated.

The project’s financing has been under a continuous cloud given the scale of the debts of the Adani Group, and the reluctance of global banks in a world transitioning to low-emission technologies. All of this is complicated by the potential for concessional finance from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) and Chinese money. As a high-cost, low-grade coal project, its commerciality has bounced around, given variations in “offtake prices” and expectations on coal futures prices.


Read more: Why big projects like the Adani coal mine won’t transform regional Queensland


The latest version is that the project has been scaled down from some 60 metric tonnes per year (mtpa) to about 25mtpa, requiring an extra investment of some A$2 billion for the mine development, and A$3.3 billion for the rail link to the export terminal at Abbot Point, but avoiding the need to expand Abbot Point. Adani Enterprises is already financially strapped, with net debt exceeding market capitalisation, and the Adani family needing to refinance Abbot Point. The Adani family has already spent some A$3.5 billion on acquiring the deposit and developing their Australian project to date.

So with virtually no capacity to inject additional equity, the focus is on whether even this scaled-down proposal can be financed by additional debt? This is why a government-sponsored concessional loan of up to A$1 billion from the NAIF to build the rail link has been seen as crucial to the project moving forward. It could be accepted by potential financiers as low-cost, high-risk “quasi equity”. It would also effectively hand Adani a monopoly position in standard gauge rail, in turn creating monopoly conditions at Abbot Point.

A more recent constraint on sentiment towards to the project has come from the Indian government’s rapidly changing attitudes to future power generation, accelerating the transition from coal-fired power to renewables. Recent statements by RK Singh, India’s Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy have confirmed that India can exceed its target of 275 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2027, a massive shift from its historic reliance on coal.

This accelerates the likely end to coal imports by India, which has seen the Adani project seek alternative markets in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Indeed, there is now documentary evidence of an electricity offtake agreement with the Bangladeshi government’s power board, setting a contractual “cost plus plus” supply of low-quality imported coal delivered at prices that are likely to approach 50% above the current coal spot price. But even at the current futures price of about US$80 per tonne, the Carmichael mine could be cashflow-positive.

Funding the Carmichael mine

Can the Adani group hope to raise the necessary additional debt? This is a two-pronged challenge – the family needs to refinance Abbot Point requiring some A$1.5 billion over the next 12 months, and the A$5 billion-plus project itself.

It looks like the family had to enlist the services of second-tier investment bank Jeffries to initiate a bond refinancing for Abbot Point – to be rated just above junk bond status. However, Jefferies reportedly pulled out within a week, its reasoning unstated.

With some 20 to 30 global banks, including Australia’s big four, having ruled out financing the mine, and Indian banks strapped for capacity, the focus has shifted to Chinese group CMEC as a potential financier, against likely Bangladesh or Pakistani alternatives. However, even with such offtake agreements the project’s longer–term viability is questionable.


Read more: The future of Australian coal: an unbankable deposit


Obviously the Chinese Communist Party, and other Chinese authorities, will need to think carefully about the potential consequences of getting involved now that the project lacks direct financial support from state and federal governments in Australia. This is especially so when the issue of Chinese influence and involvement in Australia generally, and in our politics specifically, is becoming controversial.

I also suspect that the federal Labor opposition may now adopt a position against the Adani project, in light of Queensland’s state election result.

The bottom line for financing is an assessment of the longer-term risks with Adani Enterprises, the family, and the project. Both the company and the family are already heavily exposed financially, and the project is a high-cost, high-risk one.

Bearing in mind the Paris climate agreement, the rapidly falling costs of reliable renewables, and India’s shifting energy strategy, the development of any new coal mine is certainly a very big call.

I suspect that the Adani project is already a stranded asset, and definitely not worthy of either Australian taxpayer support or Chinese investment.

Interactive: what the Adani coal mine means for Queensland

The Conversationhttps://cdn.theconversation.com/infographics/134/1cbeb15f9237d4fbc13472fb72fa7981bc16961f/site/index.html

John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: Australia’s mining boom transition is on shaky ground


Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.

This week: Australia continues to grow jobs, but wages aren’t keeping up and policymakers are running out of options.


Let’s begin with an economy that is doing relatively well.

In the US, the data were both predictable and moderately positive.

Consumer prices (as measured by the CPI) were up only 0.1% in October, but this was in line with expectations. Recall that two major hurricanes drove up gasoline prices in September, and those increases rolled off (they were up 13.1% in September and fell 2.4% in October). The year-on-year CPI increase was 2.0% – again, in line with expectations.


Read more: Trump’s ‘America first’ trade policy ignores key lesson from Great Depression


The Producer Price Index (PPI) rose by a healthy 2.6% on a year-on-year basis – despite a drop in gasoline prices for producers of 4.6% (note the difference between wholesale and retail price changes). Perhaps most importantly, there were relatively strong increases in elements of the index that the US Federal Reserve cares most about (as they are less cyclical than, say, energy prices), like healthcare costs.

Less expected, but happy news, was the 0.2% rise in retail sales. That puts retail sales up 4.6% on an annual basis. This is further evidence of the solid rebound in the US economy.

And now to Australia.

On the plus side, a fair number of jobs are being created. As Treasurer Scott Morrison was eager to point out on Thursday, 296,400 jobs have been created this year; 236,000 of them full-time.

But the continued depressing news is about wages. The wage-price index was up 0.5% for the third quarter, below market expectations of 0.7%. That puts annual wages growth at 2.0%. With inflation running at 1.8%, that means real wages growth is effectively zero. And it has been like that for a long time.

This is causing enormous problems for Australian households and policymakers.

Recall that Australian households are among the most highly leveraged in the world – with debts at around 190% of GDP. So what is going to reduce that debt?

There are two possibilities: more inflation or more income. Inflation helps reduce the debt in real terms, and income helps for obvious reasons. Right now, both avenues look shaky.

On the former, the Melbourne Institute reported on Thursday that inflation expectations fell this month, providing further evidence that future inflation is likely to be low.

On the latter, there has been a continued run of low wages growth. This is an experience being felt in advanced economies around the world. That suggests it is something to do with technology, or global economic conditions, and therefore not all that amenable to policy.


Read more: Is faster profit growth essential for a pick-up in wages growth?


That leaves us with heavily indebted households, with no obvious way out. This, of course, puts a strain on consumer spending, which in turn affects business investment and employment, and the whole (vicious) cycle loops back on itself.

What is the cut-through for policymakers?

The RBA could drop interest rates from their current 1.50% level – and increasingly some economists are suggesting that. The worry is that a rate cut might further fuel housing prices, making the problem worse, not better.

Federal income tax cuts would be another avenue, but with the budget in structural deficit, and with an economically illiterate crossbench, that looks unlikely.

The government could embark on a major infrastructure spending plan, which could rejuvenate regional employment in areas hit by the forces of globalisation. With interest rates at very low levels, for very long maturities, this seems like a good idea, as long as the projects are assessed on a rational basis.

The concern in this regard is politics. Both major parties have their predilections and bases to pander to. A bad outcome would be, for example, a big coal mine investment by the Coalition, and some uneconomic green-energy boondoggle by the opposition.

The ConversationAs I have said before in this column, the US seems to be navigating the post-2008 economic world relatively well, although caution is certainly warranted. Australia is doing much less well. And the narrative that we have “successfully transitioned from the mining boom” seems a lot more like wishful thinking than hard evidence.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.