A mining research expert says Zimbabwe’s platinum industry could suffer if current efforts by international scientists to source the metal from outer space are successful.
Lyman Mlambo, chairman of the Institute of Mining Research at the University of Zimbabwe, said asteroid mining could have far-reaching effects on Zimbabwe’s platinum industry.
On September 8, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex).
OSIRIA-Rex’s mission is to travel to the asteroid Bennu and return with a sample of thousands of tonnes of platinum, the main source of income for Zimbabwe, which is the world’s number three platinum producer.
NASA is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government responsible for the civilian space programme as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.
The latest NASA mission would show if asteroid mining will be a real threat to the global platinum industry.
“Obviously increased platinum production from asteroids will threaten the market share of world producers,” Mlambo told the Financial Gazette. “Zimbabwe currently produces six percent of the world’s primary platinum production, South Africa 73 percent and Russia 14 percent.”
Mlambo said if the platinum could be sourced in bulk from asteroids, this would have serious effects on the local industry and the economy as a whole.
“Competition from space would seriously affect these indicators. But maybe the cost of mining asteroids could be too high relative to the prices, which sometimes get very depressed as they were recently. I am not sure on the implication of using robots on cost of mining asteroids.”
The studies of meteorites have shown that asteroids contain vast mineral wealth. OSIRIS-Rex will reach its destination in 2018 and will return a sample of between 60 grammes and two kilogrammes to earth. If the seven-year mission is successful, aspirant asteroid miners would be expected to a pull platinum-rich asteroid closer to earth, or simply mining it from right there in zero gravity.
Estimates are that this could start as early as 2030, just 14 years from now, something that has unsettled South Africa’s platinum industry players.
The mining could start on asteroids as small as 10 metres in diameter and it could take up to 20 years to target the larger and more prolific asteroids. Fears are that just one of these could shut the earth’s platinum industry down because an asteroid with a diameter of about 1 000 metres could produce up to 100 000 tonnes of platinum.
Mlambo said it was important to the local industry to start putting in place measures to counter or at least mitigate the effects of this threat.
“This development is a clear sign that the platinum industry needs to improve on efficiency in the medium to long term to survive this competition. It means the need to increase exploration efforts because, while Zimbabwe is currently said to be holding the world’s second largest PGM resource in the Great Dyke, with platinum-rich asteroids coming into the picture, the comparison is now beyond the earth to space.
“It also implies the need for Zimbabwe to develop beyond primary production and maximize the whole platinum value chain — beneficiation because with new players comparative advantage (in resource endowment) alone is no longer adequate; but competitive advantage. That means whole infrastructural development, skills development, etc. Mining must have an economy-wide transformative agenda,” said Mlambo.
Credit: All Africa