Most current estimates claim that the amount of available Gold on Earth is somewhere between 150,000 – 250,000 tonnes. And at current rates of production, it will be a few decades or a century before this supply is extinguished. But once it has, where then? The Oceans or Space?
The above estimate excludes what is in the Oceans. Gold in the sea is almost impossible to access due to the tiny concentrations of it and how diluted it is, or how difficult it is to mine at the seabed.
One study claims there is only approximately 1 gram of Gold for every 100 million tons of seawater in the Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. Clearly, there is no cost-effective technology available to extract such a tiny amount of Gold from such huge volumes of water!
On the seabed the picture is similar. Undissolved deposits do exist, but they can be up to 3km underwater and then have to be mined. Again, not cost–effective.
Forbes estimates in total, there are 20 million tonnes of Gold in the oceans, which at current prices would be equivalent to over USD1,000 Trillion! Yet this Gold is so diluted, or so technologically and economically prohibitive that it is very unlikely to be accessed.
So where will new Gold deposits come from once existing available deposits have been utilised? Increasingly, there is excitement about the potential to mine away from the planet. And while that sounds far-fetched, there are serious efforts to research these prospects currently underway.
The Final Frontier
Science fiction is littered with stories of planets, moons and asteroids that serve as natural resource mines. But how close is this fiction to becoming a reality? While it will still be decades significant amounts of capital are being spent now in preparation for future endeavours.
Due to the vast distances involved all current efforts are focused within our solar system. Things really kicked off in 2015 with the passing into law of the “Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act” in the United States. As Wired writes, this law enables:
US citizens and industries to “engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources” including water and minerals. The right does not extend to extra-terrestrial life, so anything that is alive may not be exploited commercially.
While the Moon and Mars are the obvious potential targets due to their proximity and the abundance of study and interactions space agencies have already done on both, asteroids are also high on the agenda. The European Space agency first showed it was possible to land on a comet in 2014 and this year NASA landed a spacecraft on an asteroid 200 million miles away to collect samples that hopefully will be returned to Earth for examination in 2023. The Japanese Space Agency has also conducted such missions successfully.
This demonstrates that, albeit at a small scale, it is possible to collect material from an asteroid and return it to Earth. And that is why many are excited about another mission to an asteroid thought to be exceptionally resource rich.
The Golden Asteroid
The 16 Psyche asteroid is located within an asteroid belt in-between Jupiter and Mars. NASA considers the asteroid unique and will launch a mission in 2022 to send a spacecraft to map and study Psyche’s properties, as they explain:
The Psyche mission is a journey to a unique metal asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. What makes the asteroid Psyche unique is that it appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system.
Measuring 225km across the Psyche 16 is thought to contain vast amounts of Gold, Platinum, Iron and Nickel with one estimate valuing all the metal combined at a staggering USD15.8 Quadrillion. Who needs the Oceans!? The spacecraft will reach the asteroid in 2026.
À la Lune!
Closer to home the US President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April 2020 to encourage US companies to mine the moon for resources. While the actual amount of Gold on the Moon is still subject to further inquiry, estimates have been increasing in recent years:
We are still many decades away from large-scale mining of gold and other metals in Space. Yet the progress toward this goal in the last ten years has been extraordinary. The litany of new private enterprises with a focus on space including robotics, telescopes, satellites and technologies for prospecting potential sights has risen exponentially.
With Gold being a key component in space equipment and so many countries and companies rushing to space to develop it commercially there is a new demand channel for Gold in the industry.
Furthermore, NASA plans to send humans to the Moon again in the near future which could really accelerate mining potential there. The current geopolitical situation on Earth, with China’s near–monopoly of rare earth metals so vital for new industrial (especially Green energy technology) and consumer tech, as well as potentially crucial for nuclear fusion, means that other countries will be on the Moon or asteroids sooner than expected, attempting to mine.
And once this infrastructure is firmly open and the standard of robotics exists then Gold and other precious metals could perhaps be mined extra-terrestrially before the end of the century.
As always, the future is closer than we think.