The next frontier? Lunar mining for rare earth elements?Published on November 16th, 2010 | By: Peter Wray
Lunar mining may be in our not-so-distant future, as evidence of rare earth elements is clear, and China tightens its exports, increasing demand worldwide.
“We know there are local concentrations of REE on the moon,” Carle Pieters, a planetary scientist in the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown University, and principal investigator for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper, told Space.com. “[W]e have not sampled these REE concentrations directly, but can readily detect them along a mixing line with many of the samples we do have.”
According to a Missouri University of Science and Technology press release, Leslie Gertsch, a space mining expert and deputy director of the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center at Missouri S&T believes that mining in space is essential to the survival of our species.
According to Gertsch, REE are not presently detectable by remote instruments. However, thorium is a known lunar element and leads Gertsch to conclude that associated rare earth elements exist on the moon’s surface due to similar geochemical properties that caused them to crystallize under the same conditions.
“Presumably REE mixtures could be produced on the moon and shipped to Earth for more specific separation. Neither potential mining methods nor the economics of this particular approach have been studied, to my knowledge,” Gertsch concluded.
Gertsch believes that the moon was actually a part of the Earth and exists now as an aftermath of a collision. If this is true, the moon would naturally share common resources with the Earth.
However, just the presence of REE wouldn’t, by itself, trigger a lunar mining stampede. There is plenty of earthly REE around, including in the U.S. The problem with REE is that typically they aren’t found in “veins” or other heavy concentrations. Thus, even the term “concentration” must be used in the relative sense, i.e., China’s ores aren’t rich with REE but have relatively higher concentrations of REE than the U.S. Because refining the ores is a difficult and expensive process, the value and benefit of purifying REE-containing ores is determined by the market value of specific REE contained therein.
Thus, one big question is whether the lunar concentrations are significantly better than on earth, and whether the full cost of transportation, mining and refining lunar REE make sense. Dale Boucher, director of innovation at Northern Center for Advanced Technology, summed the situation up, telling Space.com, “It seems that there is significant quantity of REE’s in North America, [it's] just not profitable to refine them … yet. What value is the strategic element in this? Can one put a price on this? If so, it may be economically viable to explore the moon and extract the REE.”
Pieters says its conceivable to her that mining on the moon could occur 20-50 years from now.
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