Moon Mining: What is the Payoff?
Mining the moon has been a hot topic of late, and for good reason. The potential for a bountiful, treasure-trove of untapped resources has many companies pondering the possibilities. Is the moon ripe for the picking of rare elements, and if so, what is the payoff?
Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College, London has published a new assessment of whether or not there’s an economic case for mining the moon. Although it’s hard to identify any single lunar resource, Crawford says the moon does possess an abundant of raw materials that are of potential economic interest.
According to Crawford, the overall case for any future payoff from capitalizing on the moon’s resources has yet to be made.
"If the moon's resources are going to be helpful, they are going to be helpful beyond the surface of the moon itself.”
"It's quite complicated," he told Space.com. "It's not simple at all."
One of the biggest attractions moon mining holds is helium-3. The isotope of helium, which gets embedded in the upper layer of lunar regolith by the solar wind over billions of years, could be pivotal in powering still-to-be-built nuclear fusion reactors here on Earth. Like fossil fuels, however, the substance is a limited resource.
"It's a fossil fuel reserve. Like mining all the coal or mining all the oil, once you've mined it … it's gone," Crawford said.
"It's possible that helium-3 and other solar-wind–implanted ions, like hydrogen, may be in a higher abundance in the cold regolith near the lunar poles. That would be an important measurement to make and would require a polar lander," Crawford said.
Aside from helium-3, the prospect for other minerals is another possibility.
According to Crawford, the moon could also harbor other rare earth elements such as uranium and thorium, including other elements we’re unfamiliar with.
"It's entirely possible that when we really explore the moon properly we will find higher concentrations of some of these materials … materials that are not resolvable by orbital remote sensing," Crawford said.
He added, "To explore the whole moon at the level of detail required, that's a big undertaking. But long term, we should be keeping an open mind to that."
Vale invests $150mn to extend life of Manitoba operations
Vale has announced a $150mn CAD investment to extend current mining activities in Thompson, Manitoba by 10 years while aggressive exploration drilling of known orebodies holds the promise of mining well past 2040.
Global energy transition is boosting the market for nickel
The Thompson Mine Expansion is a two-phase project. The announcement represents Phase 1 and includes critical infrastructure such as new ventilation raises and fans, increased backfill capacity and additional power distribution. The changes are forecast to improve current production by 30%.
“This is the largest single investment we have made in our Thompson operations in the past two decades,” said Mark Travers, Executive Vice-President for Base Metals with Vale. “It is significant news for our employees, for the Thompson community and for the Province of Manitoba.
“The global movement to electric vehicles, renewable energies and carbon reduction has shone a welcome spotlight on nickel – positioning the metal we mine as a key contributor to a greener future and boosting world demand. We are proud that Thompson can be part of that future and part of the low carbon solution.”
Vale continues drilling program at Manitoba
Coupled with today’s announcement, Vale is continuing an extensive drilling program to further define known orebodies and search for new mineralization.
“This $150mn investment is just one part of our ambitious Thompson turnaround story. It is an indicator of our confidence in a long future for the Thompson operations,” added Dino Otranto, Chief Operating Officer for Vale’s North Atlantic Base Metals operations.
“Active collaboration between our design team, technical services, USW Local 6166, and our entire Thompson workforce has delivered a safe, efficient and fit-for-purpose plan that will enable us to extract the Thompson nickel resources for many years to come.”
The Thompson orebody was first discovered in 1956 by Vale (then known as Inco) following the adoption of new exploration technology and the largest exploration program to-date in the company’s history. Mining of the Thompson orebody began in 1961.
“We see the lighting of a path forward to a sustainable and prosperous future for Vale Base Metals in Manitoba,” said Gary Annett, General Manager of Vale’s Manitoba Operations.