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Rare off-Earth elements

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Are there any commercially and/or industrially significant (or potentially so in the near future) elements that are rare in local space but abundant on Earth? Water was the first thing that came to mind but apparently it's quite abundant and easy to make from existing elements.

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Iirc, asteroids closer to the sun have more metals and carbon, while asteroids further away have more silicon and oxygen. If this makes enough of a difference, Earth has plenty of silicon and oxygen if it can't be found in sources close to us. Is this what you mean?

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I'm trying to imagine how a future off-world economy might interact with the Earth economy. If we imagine a few moon bases and several orbital habitats, supporting various space industries - the first wave of really commercialising/industrialising near earth space.

I can imagine luxury items, such as steak, being pretty expensive off-Earth.

But i was wondering what essential components would need to shipped up the well to support those habitats that couldn't be mined or manufactured in space (given the cost of going up the well, companies would do everything they could to source as much as possible off-Earth).

 

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38 minutes ago, Prometheus said:

I can imagine luxury items, such as steak, being pretty expensive off-Earth.

I'm hoping cultured meats will solve that problem, and possibly lead to even better tasting meat. We should be able to engineer all kinds of goodness into meat we grow ourselves. 

It seems reasonable that Earth would want platinum group metals and HE3 enough to warrant the high cost of bringing them back planetside. Earth will always be our source for biota if we transplant species to other planets/facilities, so trading eggs/seeds will be common. I'm not sure if there's any inorganic needs that can't be filled offplanet.

Culture and comfort will always be marketable. It's one thing to eat a grilled steak but something else entirely to eat boeuf bourguignon or a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. I would imagine humans will need human touches out there in the dark, where you're always reminded how small and fragile you are, and you need something familiar. Non-essential tools probably wouldn't be manufactured offplanet for a while, so you'd have to get your guitars and playing cards from Earth. 

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Anything we can do an asteroid can do better; an asteroid can do anything better than us.

Seriously, the gravity well of taking something away from Earth is so expensive in energy that it will make sense to get any element from somewhere smaller more or less regardless of how common it is.

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21 minutes ago, John Cuthber said:

Seriously, the gravity well of taking something away from Earth is so expensive in energy that it will make sense to get any element from somewhere smaller more or less regardless of how common it is.

You're right. So much so, I'm going to take back that comment about guitars and playing cards. Some quick math shows a deck of cards would cost about US$2000 to bring up to LEO. Better to spend your payload on a 3D printer and make your own guitars offplanet.

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Well, it's certainly sensible for any stable element.
Whether it's worth it for a steak is debatable- there might be some stupidly rich tourists in space.

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I think there will always be a market for luxury items, because this is real meat, don't you know.

So there's no elements on Earth that would be so rare and essential in local space that it would be worth the cost of going up the well.

Biota seems viable, but perhaps that could be managed eventually with hydroponics in simulated gravity. Seems human resources, if needed for industry (not too many jobs automated), would be the most valuable resource. 

 

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On 11/19/2019 at 3:12 PM, Prometheus said:

Are there any commercially and/or industrially significant (or potentially so in the near future) elements that are rare in local space but abundant on Earth?

Replace in your question "element" by "isotope".

"The abundance of helium-3 is thought to be greater on the Moon than on Earth, having been embedded in the upper layer of regolith by the solar wind over billions of years"

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium-3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium-3#Extraction_from_extraterrestrial_sources

 

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42 minutes ago, Sensei said:

Replace in your question "element" by "isotope".

Or replace them with absolutely anything. But i'm interested in the other way round: rare in space, common on Earth (to the point it could be economically viable to ship it up the well to near Earth space habitats/industries).

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31 minutes ago, Prometheus said:

But i'm interested in the other way round: rare in space, common on Earth (to the point it could be economically viable to ship it up the well to near Earth space habitats/industries).

Habitats, spaceships, rockets, infrastructure etc. and people are rare in cosmic space, at the moment.. ;)

 

Edited by Sensei

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Yeah, i'm trying to get a rough idea of what a space economy might look like. Imagine space tourism, industries (manufacturing that benefits from microgravity such as zblan, printing of organs), asteroid/lunar mining (helium 3 seems the most viable for lunar industries) and commercial and government funded research missions to Mars beyond. 

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On 11/19/2019 at 9:12 AM, Prometheus said:

Water was the first thing that came to mind but apparently it's quite abundant and easy to make from existing elements.

The existing elements are oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen and water might end up being fairly valuable, even if you aren't lugging them up from the earth. It's not like you have a convenience store just down the block where you can quickly and easily get them. 

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Sure, so we could imagine one of the early industries would need would be water mining and/or manufacturing to support a growing human population in space. With the only competition being an expensive supply from earth, the financial incentive is there.

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45 minutes ago, Prometheus said:

Sure, so we could imagine one of the early industries would need would be water mining and/or manufacturing to support a growing human population in space. With the only competition being an expensive supply from earth, the financial incentive is there.

The first group to bring enough equipment offworld  to set up manufacturing will have a huge advantage. EVERYTHING they can make will be vastly less expensive than anything they can get from Earth. Once your group has machines that can make more machines, everyone else has to ask themselves whether it's cheaper to deal with you or start their own manufacturing.

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But that's it — you have to have EVERYTHING so that it can be self-sustaining.

 

Let's say you set up on the moon. Water might be available, but is it local? You can't pipe it anywhere, since it's not liquid. You have to transport it as a solid. If it's near the poles, do you want to set up shop there? Probably not. Your solar panels will be pretty inefficient.

It's a bit similar to setting up a city in the middle of the desert, not near any oasis.  

 

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9 minutes ago, Phi for All said:

The first group to bring enough equipment offworld  to set up manufacturing will have a huge advantage. EVERYTHING they can make will be vastly less expensive than anything they can get from Earth.

Would you think it viable that the 'world's' first trillionaire would be that entrepreneur who first makes a successful move in this market?

 

11 minutes ago, Phi for All said:

Once your group has machines that can make more machines, everyone else has to ask themselves whether it's cheaper to deal with you or start their own manufacturing.

But it could it be just one company? It seems that to establish a presence in space such a broad knowledge base is required that it would not be feasible to establish a monopoly. 

I don't know much about economics, but it seems that viable economies are an ecosystem requiring other agencies, perhaps with overlapping market interests, to flourish. Greater cooperation might be the only viable strategy to establish an off-earth presence.  Or is that just wishful thinking? 

 

26 minutes ago, swansont said:

If it's near the poles, do you want to set up shop there? Probably not. Your solar panels will be pretty inefficient.

I thought there were locations around the south poles in near permanent light making solar viable? I can't remember the source of that though.

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2 minutes ago, Prometheus said:

 I thought there were locations around the south poles in near permanent light making solar viable? I can't remember the source of that though.

The very low angle is a problem, since the solar panels would have to be near-vertical, and would block another panel placed behind it. It limits the usable area

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1 hour ago, Prometheus said:

Would you think it viable that the 'world's' first trillionaire would be that entrepreneur who first makes a successful move in this market?

Whenever there's a gold rush, it's the folks who supply the miners that make the steady money. Imo, using material from space to make things in space for use in space is our next big industrial revolution. 

We're headed towards globalization but we're a long way away. Once we let ANYBODY offplanet without some kind of enforceable restrictions/regulations/protocols, their potential for personal enrichment/power/wealth is, for all purposes, practically limitless. 

2 hours ago, Prometheus said:

But it could it be just one company? It seems that to establish a presence in space such a broad knowledge base is required that it would not be feasible to establish a monopoly. ce of that though.

Multinational corporations often have diversified operations covering many industries and services. Couple that with the idea that you make more profit when you control all the steps in your manufacturing, and you have an earnings potential that some extremists would do anything to get. 

2 hours ago, Prometheus said:

I don't know much about economics, but it seems that viable economies are an ecosystem requiring other agencies, perhaps with overlapping market interests, to flourish. Greater cooperation might be the only viable strategy to establish an off-earth presence.  Or is that just wishful thinking? 

Look around the world right now at all the folks sitting on enormous piles of cash. Billionaires, autocrats, oligarchs, that's all you hear about, and they don't like cooperating with governments, unless it's to lobby for less taxes or take taxpayer dollars. Governments mean regulations to them, and loss of profit.

I do wish it could be as you suggest, but I also know how easily we could allow the worst to happen. The planet is a little too consumed in greed atm to be allowed unlimited access to the candy store, imo.

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I would expect many of the heavier elements to be rare on the moon or in asteroids - or, rather, only found mixed in with other minerals at low concentrations; on Earth there have been active geological processes that lead to concentrated ores and many of these are absent in the places we are looking to for space resources.The moon for example has an abundance of lighter element - Silicon, Aluminium, Calcium, Magnesium, Titanium but you will struggle to find elements like Lead or Thorium or Uranium at anything but very low concentrations. Nuclear fuels will be difficult to supply except from Earth. Mars would have had the kinds of geological processes needed to make better ore concentrations in it's distant past but fissionable elements are radioactive and will have undergone radioactive decay and may not still be viable.

Mars, like all space locations, presents serious difficulties for mining and refining. I suspect nuclear power would be a minimum requirement for a Mars colony but I don't see how any colony could build and fuel one from local materials without an industrial economic base that is more comprehensive and advanced than an advanced industrial nation on Earth.

It seems to me any colonisation of space will require a lot of advanced technology, which will depend on a wide range of materials made to exacting standards. Producing each of them tends to be an advanced specialty that is itself dependent on other advanced, specialised materials and products. Making life in space simpler looks needed. How much can be done with crude nickel-iron? It is one of the materials that exists in great abundance and could be a basic building material but I cannot imagine building a nuclear reactor or rocket motor out of it.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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On 11/22/2019 at 10:02 PM, Ken Fabian said:

...but you will struggle to find elements like Lead or Thorium or Uranium at anything but very low concentrations.

That's interesting, but i thought there was a viable amount of thorium on the moon? For instance, this blog, makes a case for liquid fluoride thorium reactors.

 

On 11/22/2019 at 10:02 PM, Ken Fabian said:

It seems to me any colonisation of space will require a lot of advanced technology, which will depend on a wide range of materials made to exacting standards. Producing each of them tends to be an advanced specialty that is itself dependent on other advanced, specialised materials and products. Making life in space simpler looks needed. How much can be done with crude nickel-iron? It is one of the materials that exists in great abundance and could be a basic building material but I cannot imagine building a nuclear reactor or rocket motor out of it.

I imagine there would have to be significant capital investment to get things kick started. I've heard ideas of making self-replicating - but even if you have the raw materials, how much infrastructure do you need to make the micro-processors, and how much more so for the industries required in the pipeline before you can even think about making a micro-processor? 

 

Moving away from materials, i can imagine service industries exported services to space. For instance, the banking system would likely all be Earth based.

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On 11/22/2019 at 11:02 PM, Ken Fabian said:

Mars, like all space locations, presents serious difficulties for mining and refining. I suspect nuclear power would be a minimum requirement for a Mars colony but I don't see how any colony could build and fuel one from local materials without an industrial economic base that is more comprehensive and advanced than an advanced industrial nation on Earth.

Solar furnace just needs enough area of mirrors reflecting light toward focal point.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_furnace

"The temperature at the focal point may reach 3,500 °C (6,330 °F), and this heat can be used to generate electricity, melt steel, make hydrogen fuel or nanomaterials. "

 

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5 hours ago, Prometheus said:

That's interesting, but i thought there was a viable amount of thorium on the moon? For instance, this blog, makes a case for liquid fluoride thorium reactors.

From that site, it looks like Thorium has been identified by remote sensing at up to 12ppm. Monzanite is the principle mineral ore on Earth at 2.5% Thorium content  ie 25,000 ppm. Even so, the Thorium is produced as a byproduct and is not usually economic to mine by or for itself.

On Earth the ores are mostly found as sands and placer deposits, which the Moon will not have, ie relatively easy to mine on Earth. It is not clear what mineral form Lunar Thorium is, as mapped at that blog, but a few sites at 12 ppm does not sound like viable ore bodies to me. Mars could have better Thorium resources but they have not been identified.

Then there is the refining - which is going to require an extensive variety of other mined and refined and manufactured materials. Then there is manufacture of thorium reactors and associated plant - which looks like requiring very exacting standards. Self sufficiency is a seriously complex business.

 

5 hours ago, Prometheus said:

...even if you have the raw materials, how much infrastructure do you need to make the micro-processors, and how much more so for the industries required in the pipeline before you can even think about making a micro-processor? 

This is an issue that I think gets overlooked in the optimism - advanced technologies involve the intersection of multiple, complex specialised activities. Thousands of specialties? Tens of thousands? I don't know, but I think that extent of specialisation cannot be sustained by anything short of a very large, advanced industrialised economy - and it probably needs an economy with a sustained history of consistent excess. That is very different to a colony that begins at (well below?) the borderline for viability in an extreme environment with high technological requirements, where small mistakes and problems kill people.

I think the advanced economies we do have were built from an existing base of abundance of resources, including abundance of basic things like food, water, biological and mineral materials that were cheap and easy to move around and trade. Prolonged economic abundance made the advances possible and each advance depended upon advances elsewhere.

 

4 hours ago, Sensei said:

Solar furnace just needs enough area of mirrors reflecting light toward focal point.

I was thinking more generally, for a reliable power supply given Mars gets dust storms that can go for weeks at a time; solar power alone will be inadequate without serious, high capacity energy storage. I expect solar furnaces would work most days, when the sky is clear of dust, although I think they will still need some precision technology - and need serious dust protection.

On the Moon? Better solar furnace opportunities there - during the two weeks daytimes - however I think the Moon is going to miss out on a lot of minerals and ore bodies that require a prolonged planetary history of geological activity to form.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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