Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lunar Mining [Part Three]: Lunar Considerations

This post originally appeared on our official GLXP blog.


This is our third post about whether or not it makes sense, economic especially, to mine the Moon for resources. We already tackled the He-3/Helium-3 meme in an earlier post. Now we are considering whether or not it makes sense to extract Platinum Group Metals or Rare Earth Elements from the Moon for terrestrial use. Ie does it make sense to go mine the Moon? Should Team Phoenicia be outfitting our rover, Victory on Pangaea, as part of an effort to boot strap this nascent industry?

This post will deal with working on the Moon and the specific issues that must be taken into consideration. This is as much meant to be a contrast with what is done here on Earth and a consideration of what must be adapted and changed to make it work for the Moon. Where there are problems with working on the Moon or regulatory issues, this will also be covered.

However, the main economics thrust (and conclusion) will await another post, probably next week or the week after since the GLXP Team Summit will be preoccupying the Team: since we're largely local, we are sooooooo going to smack down the XPF and PTS on the burger munching.

The Obvious Differences:

The lunar environment is like nowhere on earth, not even in the most extreme locales where mining takes place, or even could take place just as a demonstration come close to matching the extremes of even the most benign locations of the Moon. These differences are worth touching on if we are go examine what would be needed to produce lunar mines. The some of the environmental factors that are radically different than on Earth include the fact the Moon lacks an atmosphere, radically different day/night cycle, and the ever present regolith. We will be lightly discussing each of these.

Working in a vacuum

Working in an atmosphere is something that we all take for granted. It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum. In reality, it seems that nature actually abhors an atmosphere. If the Moon had anything close to an atmosphere, it has been lost in the eons long since past. Technically, the Moon does have an atmosphere, but its something that's so tenuous that for all intents and purposes any operations on the Moon must be treated as working in the hardest of vacuums. At least until we finally terraform the Moon...

Since we are only now reaching out to the Moon once more to traverse its surface, its just mildly premature to discuss shirtsleeve mining techniques, nevermind terraforming Luna herself. Besides the lack of breathable atmosphere on the Moon meaning that any human miners would need to be spacesuits and an extraordinary logistics train for supplies, there are other considerations that even anaerobic robots would need to take into account. Since we are participating in a prize to land uninhabited rovers on the Moon, we'll focus on robotic concerns.

The foremost of those considerations is heat. Computers these days generate a fantastic amount of heat. In fact supercomputing centers spend as much money on the power to cool the computers that everyone assume aspire to Skynet-hood as it does to just run them. Even your PC probably uses over 800 watts of power...and that is converted into heat. Heat that must go somewhere. In an atmosphere, that's an easy thing to take care of. It gets cooled by running air over it. Convention is the fastest way to cool something as its heat is imparted into the vast heat sink that is the air we breath. However, lacking this, the Moon forces something operating on it to radiate away the heat. This is orders of magnitude slower and as the some of the experts in the field have put it, even 50 watts of power can be your bane over time in a vacuum.

Any lunar excavator would need to have a carefully and extensively planned system of radiator fins or a massive heat sink that it would need to offload the heat from after a period of time to another system that might have that labyrinthine peacock tail of radiator fins. Either you are trading physical complexity and limitations on mining behavior in order to protect the cooling apparatus or you are adding significant complexity to the control side of the mining robot. Dumping heat in a vacuum has been dealt with and is a known problem. However, it has not been dealt with while also designing a mining vehicle. To do so will be most definitely nontrivial.

The Lunar Light Cycle

The Moon does not have the terrestrial night cycle. On Earth, we have a 24 hour light cycle where we shift from day to night and back again. This relatively short cycle combined with the atmosphere keep the Earth's surface within certain temperature ranges. As brutal as many of the terrestrial environments are, the day-night cycle on the Moon alone easily outruns the competing equivalents on Earth.

Lunar nights last 354 hours. This is more than 14 days long. Any system of solar power will need to have energy storage or a backup that will last two weeks. To do this would require a solution that is either massive (or heavy in common terms, like extensive batteries) and/or a political hot potato (nuclear power).

The heating and cooling cycle from the lunar light cycle is very difficult to deal with, too. The surface temperatures at the equator swing 300 C from its lows around -180 C to 123 C. Any materials that the equipment is made form must be able to handle those temperature swings. That thermal loading from the sun is significantly higher than on Earth. Getting rid of that heat is something that must be taken into consideration for all mining operations.

In the permanently shaded regions, while, the temperature does not fluctuate, it is an estimated -233 C.


Lunar regolith is truly nasty stuff. It is one of the most abrasive substances known to man. In any operation equipment that is developed is going to need to deal with this fact. Machines wear out from grit getting into them here on earth. When it is far more hostile than any sand on earth, the results could be catastrophic. There are lunar regolith simulants that can be tested against, but the basic design consideration is still present.

Location, Location, Location:

The final consideration is a doozie: the moon is far away. On the cosmic scale, the Moon is sitting in our laps. On the scale of working on active mines, it could not be further away. In all probability, there will be no one there to fix things for several years. Troubleshooting remotely is quite the challenge: just as the MER team and what happened with Spirit. And! What may be acceptable for an explorer would almost certainly not be for a production mine: days, even weeks of being stuck could be disastrous financially.

A lunar mine truck stuck on the ramp could permanently shutdown the mine. Planned for such events - the stuff that we take for granted on our own rock, like being able to kick the tires or manually and easily hook up a winch or whatnot - is not so easy roboticly, nevermind on the Moon.

Furthermore, just getting to and from the Moon is nontrivial. The more equipment you take up, the more expensive it is. The more material you bring down, the more expensive it is. If you askew more for more complex equipment, it increases the likelihood of breakdown and of greater cost. Cost, money, profits, and some analysis however, are the next post's subjects as we use it to wrap up our lunar mining posts.

Until then, ad astra per luna.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lunar Mining [Part Two]: The Standard Terrestrial Process

This post originally appeared over at our official GLXP blog.

This is our second post in the series on lunar mining and whether or not it makes sense to help bootstrap a new potential resource extraction industry. After all, if there is a new lucrative source of vital materials that would help improve our quality of life, then we, as lunar explorers, ought to help, if not try to found this industry ourselves. Should our rover’s instrument kit be geared towards ore discovery?

Before we can answer that, we need to know what are the normal steps for a terrestrial mine to be opened and generating revenue. There will be significant differences between a terrestrial and lunar mine, but knowing what steps are present, what obstacles need to be overcome, and what hoops must be hopped through here will help us outline the costs for a mine up there.

For the remainder of this post, we will be talking about terrestrial mines and the process therein. The subsequent posts will be about talking about the specifics for refining for platinum group metals and rare earth elements. Then we will discuss what needs to be done for differently for lunar mining and extraction. Finally, we’ll wrap up with whether or not this makes sense to do.

The Terrestrial Methodology

The exploitation of new resources generally has a very standardized methodology. Mining and mineral resource extraction is a very well understood process. People have been doing this for millennia and modern techniques while having undergone evolution have their roots deep in the past. The steps haven’t really changed from the times of the Roman Empire, albeit they have been systematized and thde tails have changed (sometimes radically). Those steps are surveying, proving, extracting, smelting/refining and delivery. Whether those resources are terrestrial, lunar, or otherwise, those steps will remain the same.


Geological surveys are the first step. These often involve geologists trolling all over the areas of interest. They are time consuming and incredibly man-hour intensive. In the past they were complete done on the ground. These days, remote sensing does the general sweep, sometimes from satellite for mineral content, or even aerial. This was recently done in Afghanistan which found a trove of rare earth elements, for example. However, sources that are found must be examined close up and proven to be worthwhile for exploitation.


The next step in finding and exploiting resources is proving that resource. That is that once you have found a site that has a mineralogical content that shows promise to exploit, it has to be examined in detail to verify that the resource is truly worth exploiting. What-if that promising sample you brought back is a single rock with that particular ore combination? You will have to dig a little deeper and provide enough sufficient samples to be sure.

Interestingly, the SEC – Security and Exchange Commission – has established guidelines for all publicly traded companies to prove those resources. One of the SEC's reasons to do this is to prevent some company to pop up, claim to have a site, salted that site, and then disappear after taking investor's money.

The standard for proving a source, as advised by the mining companies that we consulted, is to extract 50 ft to 75 ft (15 m to 22.5m) deep cores for study. Each of these are 22 lbs for every 5 ft (10 kg for every 1.5m) making a single core 220 to 330 lbs (100 kg to 150 kg).


The physical mining part of the process seems relatively straight forward. Once a source has been proven, the ore is removed, often via a surface mine, to a crusher where the ore is smashed into usable and refinable sized pieces. The exact details are dependent on whether or not this is a surface mine or a shaft. Furthermore, this is also somewhat different between the different sorts of metals being extracted as well.


The exact refining process is 100% dependent on the metal being extracted. Since the metals we are discussing here are the Rare Earth Elements (REEs) and Platinum Group Elements (PGMs), we''ll lightly touch on their processes.

Those for Rare Earth Elements are extremely complicated and highly dependent on the source. This is so much the case that it is not possible to take ore from a different mine and use the same processing facilities from an existing mine to refine that ore. This is because of the chemistry of the samples are very, very important. The reason being the extraction process is almost purely a chemical process rather than merely applying a lot of heat to ore. We have been informed that it takes ten to twenty tons of ore to work through the entire process of refining and get the kinks worked out...if there are few problems.

Platinum Group Metals are often extracted as part of a "bundle" of multiple metals that are being pulled out. Nickel, copper, cobalt, gold and iron are often extracted as part of the process. This process is just as complicated as the REE extraction, but not for same reasons. The ore goes through a flotation processes, smelting in an electrical furnace, and then multiple chemical processes. It ought to be noted that there is 1/10 to one kilogram per ton of ore in a good source of PGMs.


Finally, of course, delivery takes place. On earth, the metals are shipped off to customers via truck and train. While the prices are high, Molycorp has publicly stated that the "generic REE" oxide delivered to customer costs $2.77/kg from the Mountain Pass mine.

To Be Continued

Next up we will talk about working this on the Moon. What can be done there? What can be done here? What must be and can be? The process for extracting on the Moon is very similar, yet has serious and interesting limitations. Just what IS doable on the Moon?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lunar Mining Part One.

This post originally appeared on our GLXP blog.

One of the reasons that often gets thrown around for going to the Moon is lunar resource extraction. The different resources thrown around are myriad, but there are generally two that are given special attention. The first is Helium-3. The second resource are metals - platinum group metals and rare earth elements - for terrestrial use.

We tackled Helium-3 chimera in a past guest posting by the team friend, James Nicoll. It turns out that He-3 is actually a bad bet for a resource to mine on the Moon. Subsequently, at least one post has appeared since that has backed our position. We hope that we can lay that tired chimera to rest.

That said, there is a second potential resource class, if you will, that is often touted for lunar extraction. These are industrially useful metals. Ones that have high prices and are likely to have an increasing market often attract interest. There are two sets of metals that fit the current vogue for lunar extraction: Platinum Group Metals (PGM) and Rare Earth Elements (REE). Platinum has a current market price in excess of $56,000/kg as of the time of this writing. Europium has a current market price in excess of $3,200/kg and seems likely to rise.

With those market prices in mind, Team Phoenicia set out to investigate whether or not it was worthwhile to attempt to help jump start a lunar mining industry. We interviewed those involved in the mining industry, both in PGMs and REEs. We dug into the technical, regulatory, and financial requirements for mining and what more would be needed to start a lunar equivalent.

Could it be made profitable? Would it be profitable? Should this guide our instrument package on our final rover, Victory on Pangaea? The subsequent posts in this series will explore the topic. We invite you to follow along and see what we found out for ourselves and how it impacts any potential Moon Miner.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

New Sponsor: Quality Thermistor Inc (QTI)

Team Phoenicia is proud to announce that QTI is now a sponsor of our endeavor to land a rover on the Moon as part of the Google Lunar X Prize. QTI will be providing temperature sensors for use on our rocket development, flight hardware and rovers.

Quality Thermistor, Inc. (QTI) was founded in 1977 to meet the increasing demand for high quality electronic components for the aerospace industry. Since then, QTI has exceeded the requirements of some of the most stringent high cost of failure applications, changing the landscape of the supply chain for the entire industry.

Today, QTI continues to maintain its leadership position for mission-critical applications as well as for medical and industrial applications by supplying the world’s top companies with innovative products and services. In fact, QTI developed the highest standard for surface mount thermistors with the introduction of qualified surface mount parts to MIL-PRF-32192; supplying design engineers with fully qualified DSCC options for two PTC and three NTC surface mount package styles. Additionally, QTI has partnered with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for surface mount thermistors qualified to S311-P827, an industry first!

Team Phoenicia is a Google Lunar X Prize team that was launched in 2007. The team worked diligently and became an official GLXP team in February 2011. Team Phoenicia is working towards an August 2014 lunar landing date at the lunar South Pole.

New Sponsor: Measurement Specialties

Team Phoenicia is proud to announce that Measurement Specialties has become a sponsor of Team Phoenicia's attempt to capture the Google Lunar X Prize. Measurement Specialties will be providing a host of sensors from the team's test stand all the way to the lunar surface.

Measurement Specialties is a global designer and manufacturer of sensors and sensor-based systems which measure pressure/force, position, vibration, temperature, humidity, and fluid properties. Our products are used as embedded devices by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or as stand alone sensors for test and measurement to provide critical monitoring, feedback and control input. We are at the heart of many everyday products and provide a vital link to the physical world.

Measurement Specialties is an applications company and we understand that embedded solutions often require customized designs. Our portfolio includes technologies capable of measuring most physical characteristics and allows us to design the right sensor for the application. Physical property, electrical input/output and package configuration are all important considerations when developing products to meet our customers’ needs.

Team Phoenicia is a Google Lunar X Prize team that was launched in 2007. The team worked diligently and became an official GLXP team in February 2011. Team Phoenicia is working towards an August 2014 lunar landing date at the lunar South Pole.

New Sponsor: Algo-Logic

Team Phoenicia is proud to announce that Algo-Logic will be joining as a sponsor for the team's pursuit of the Google Lunar X Prize. Algo-Logic will be helping by providing the data aquisition and sensor processing systems for Team Phoenicia's future test stands, rockets and rovers.

Algo-Logic was founded by a professor and PhD researchers from Stanford University and Washington University. The Algo-Logic ® team has extensive experience building routers, data center switches, and network processing circuits in ASICs and FPGA logic. Algo-Logic specializes in mapping network algorithms into hardware logic.

The founders of Algo-Logic are experts in developing, documenting, and prototyping logic and systems of reprogrammable networks. Past work is documented in over 100 articles in top journals and technical conference proceedings.

Team Phoenicia is a Google Lunar X Prize team that was launched in 2007. The team worked diligently and became an official GLXP team in February 2011. Team Phoenicia is working towards an August 2014 lunar landing date at the lunar South Pole.

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