Africa is home to large mining activities. The mining industry is an integral part of the African economy, contributing via intra-state trade and exports.
Ongoing mining projects worth more than US$1 billion are taking place in South Africa (PGM 69%; gold: 31%), Guinea (bauxite and aluminum), Madagascar (nickel), Mozambique (coal), Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia (cobalt and copper), Nigeria and Sudan (crude petroleum), Senegal (iron), among others.
It is no news that mining activities have caused severe environmental consequences, and Africa has had its fair share too. While policies and regulations are being put in place by governments and various international bodies to prevent further environmental degradation and protect what is left of the earth’s habitat, the majority of the African continent has struggled to enforce these regulations, largely due to weak governmental structures.
Sadly, the African political clime has been plagued with a complicated history of inconsistent legislation and weak law enforcement mechanisms. For most African countries, it is a conundrum. Many mining firms thrive, not only because of the promising prospects but also because of the loopholes in the regulations and policies of most African countries. To them, working under unpleasant conditions is a small price to pay, compared to upholding safety and environmental standards.
Mining, by nature, is an exploitative, dangerous and environmentally damaging activity. Even with strict policies and regulations in place, mining activities will still release dangerous substances into the atmosphere and surroundings. It really is a catch-22 with combating environmental degradation, because eventually, it is only a matter of time before the consequent environmental hazards catch up with us.
The good news is that significant progress is being made in the space industry. Our world has gone from baby steps on the moon to giant leaps in space technology. These milestones are now beyond bragging rights, but rather an exigent obligation to keep up with the global paradigm shift. What’s more, these advancements are extending to the African continent. A number of African states have several satellites already launched into space, and more African states already have space programmes running. Space science and technology is the new black!
The industrialisation of space would be brought about primarily by increasing commercial activities in space, worth several billion dollars per year, largely involving the following activities: telecommunications, direct broadcast television, navigation (e.g. the Global Positioning System), remote sensing, and meteorological services.
With SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic —the top three frontline space tourism companies— are engaged in a fierce rivalry as to who would be the supreme space tourism company, and a host of government as well as private companies showing sufficient interest and involvement in space tourism, it is safe to say that asteroid mining is imminent.
There are millions of asteroids in the solar system – remnants of bodies colliding in space. Most of the asteroids are distributed between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter —the main asteroid belt— but not all of them. According to Advantage Environment, approximately 13,000 asteroids are categorized as near-Earth objects, well within reasonable reach, and at least 900 more are discovered every year.
Asteroid mining is a concept that involves the extraction of useful materials from asteroids and near-earth objects, which are useful for propulsion, construction, life support, agriculture, metallurgy, and precious and strategic metals. Volatiles such as hydrogen and methane could be used to produce rocket fuel for transporting spacecraft between the Earth and near-earth objects. Rare-earth metals, such as thulium, scandium, and holmium could be used to manufacture materials as well as solar panels which could be used to power habitats in space. These solar-powered cells could also be used to provide electricity for its inhabitants with satellites specifically designed for this purpose. Iron, nickel and cobalt would serve as fundamental raw materials for building space factories. Precious metals such as platinum, platinum-group metals (PGMs), and gold are also useful. A handful of companies, emerging and existing, will require materials with a high level of purity in large quantities, all of which are readily available in asteroids. There are conjectures that the asteroid mining industry is a whooping trillion-dollar industry.
With all of the vast possibilities that space technology brings our way, we might want to ask ourselves, is asteroid mining still rocket science?
To establish a mine, a portion of vegetation is cleared. This causes deforestation (and eventually, erosion and flooding) as well as the loss of biodiversity, which adversely affect native inhabitants. Leakages and tailing dumpings have raised serious environmental concerns. Yet most African governments struggle to keep these occurrences in check. There have been several reported cases of cyanide leaks and lead poisoning. Rivers and dams are re-routed to create exposed riverbeds for mining, which has a detrimental effect on fish and wildlife that depend on rivers for survival.
OK Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua, New Guinea has caused environmental harm that is far-reaching to the 50,000 residents spread across the 120 villages close to the mine, due to the discharges produced daily.
Mining also has a remarkable adverse effect on the atmosphere. During mining, particles that are not visible to the ordinary eye are released into the air and transported by wind. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic elements are often present in such particles. Respiratory diseases and allergies can be triggered by the inhalation of such airborne particles.
Underground mining causes huge amounts of waste earth to be brought to the surface, waste that often becomes toxic when it comes into contact with air and water. It causes cave-ins and sinkholes which can cause severe damage to buildings and equipment, as well as the loss of life. Coal mining also leads to greenhouse gas emissions.
Acid mine drainage occurs when water comes in contact with coal and other rocks during the mining process. This water, made toxic because of the influence of toxic minerals and other heavy metals, eventually leaks out of abandoned mines and contaminates groundwater, streams, rivers, soil, plants, animals and humans. As a result, an orange colour blankets the river, estuary or sea bed, killing plants and making surface water unfit for drinking.
Common health threats posed by coal mining include pneumoconiosis (aka black lung disease), cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease, and kidney disease.
In a report given by Infogalactic, a series of lead poisonings in Zamfara State, Nigeria, led to the deaths of at least 163 people between March and June 2010, including 111 children. Health ministry figures state the discovery of 355 cases, with 46 per cent proving fatal.
According to NASA-compiled data, Kriel, a town in South Africa’s coal mining province in east Johannesburg, has the second-highest volume of sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the world.
Mining activities have taken a toll on our environment, which is why beyond maximizing of mineral resources for space infrastructure and fuelling of propellants, asteroid mining also provides a ready recourse to terrestrial mining activities, with a view to saving the planet.
Thousands of people are forced to work in mines and are also forced to live under sub-human conditions. If attention is shifted from terrestrial mining, of course with robots working the mines in space, these people could not only live elongated lives but also find healthier employment alternatives.
The advantages of asteroid mining are numerous: trip exchanges for cargo to reduce wasteful journeys of transport trucks, development of cheaper batteries to reduce energy and storage costs, beneficiation of plastic waste to sustainable and clean bio-fuel as well as the development and use of solar-powered airships
Some studies indicate that an asteroid that runs 1,000 m (3,280 ft) across could yield about 100,000 tons of platinum, which already has miners in South Africa worried because they only mine a measly 130 tons of the metal on Earth each year.
“Space miners will first target water-rich asteroids for their hydrogen potential, then mineral-rich asteroids for their nickel and iron-ore. Platinum is a small by-product of their yield and has no use in space. But that means it poses a risk to the platinum resources below the earth’s surface”, says Kieck.
This is not the time for African countries to take the back seat, instead, they should take advantage of the momentum that is driving the space industry. Nations like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have shown interests in asteroid mining, having recognised its vast potential. It will be noteworthy to see African countries on the frontiers with technology giants like Russia, China and the USA.
In May 2017, Mechanical engineer and PhD graduate, Jonathan Lun’s idea for the innovation challenge was chosen as the winner at the GIC awards ceremony, in Johannesburg. His idea is to use an innovative rocket technology, known as a vacuum arc thruster, which consumes asteroid metal as fuel to achieve industrial-scale transport of mined asteroid material.
Asteroid mining will serve as a stepping stone, bridging the gap between developed countries and developing countries in space technology to a significant level, Africa will be setting the foundation to be key players in the space industry, while at the same time contributing significantly to the battle against environmental degradation.
David is a space industry and technology analyst at Space in Africa. He’s a graduate of Mining Engineering from the Federal University of Technology Akure.