One of the most-used elements in industrial work on Earth is disappearing.
Popular for industrial use because of its resistance to corrosion and heat, platinum sells for over $1,000 an ounce and is in everything from wedding bands to medical devices to a number of auto parts.
And retrieving what little of the element does remain, will only exacerbate the ongoing climate crisis – resource extraction was the source of half the world’s carbon emissions and 80% of its biodiversity loss in 2019 and that number has likely only risen.
The problem’s been known for awhile; back in 2016 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted demand would outpace supply of platinum and palladium. At that time, the college estimated we’d run out of platinum by 2050, a mere 27 years from now.
There’s also the issue that what platinum remains is in the hands of powers adversarial to the U.S.
Russia accounts for up to 30% of the world’s palladium supply, and up to 10% of its platinum, and its war in Ukraine has pushed export prices higher. MIT also estimated that China, another stockpiler of industrial metals, could stop selling its platinum stores to the greater globe as soon as 2034.
So what is there to do?
The answer could lie thousands of miles from our planet, in deep space, according to Astroforge CEO and former Virgin Orbit veteran Matt Gialich. Gialich is certain that in the near future, it’ll be commonplace for companies to operate refineries in space that can sort and send back elements crucial for construction on earth.
“We know that these concentrations are super high in space,” Gialich said. He said Astroforge is starting with platinum metals, but it does have “a future roadmap that’s much, much bigger than that,” but wouldn’t share more about what other materials the company hopes to mine in space. It’s reminiscent of the old California Gold Rush – the minute you tell someone there’s platinum in them there asteroids, others with means will want to rush in first.
Astroforge is developing technology to mine and refine minerals in deep space. The company will face a vital test in its mission to mine asteroids for minerals this April, when it tests its in-space refinery technology for the first time.
In particular, Astroforge is looking at retrieving palladium and platinum from asteroids. The shrinking store of these metals makes it easier to understand why going to space to mine more might not be such a far-fetched plan.
Gialich pointed out the emissions problem and noted, “part of that is platinum group mining… not all, but a big part of it. When it comes to mining metals, there’s just no way to solve that; you can do things to reduce it, but we’re running out of ore on the earth as we continuously mine.”
He noted that a while ago, it wasn’t feasible to undertake these sorts of missions, but said that mission price continues to drop as more companies enter the private space race and offer rideshare missions for lower and lower costs.
“As we continue to run out of ore and as access to space becomes cheaper, we think we're actually past the inflection point of when this makes more economic sense to do,” Gialich said.
But, it’ll take a lot of cash and crafty partnerships – NASA spent $800 million to retrieve only 60 grams during a similar project. Two other space mining firms, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, were bought out before reaching their goals. This is why Astroforge raised $13 million in May, but it’ll likely need much more than that for future missions and anticipates future fundraises. Gialich wouldn’t disclose if Astroforge has any customers signed up for future missions or to buy space ore yet.
This upcoming mission in April will see Astroforge’s small in-orbit refinery hitch a ride to space on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, in partnership with British small satellite launcher OrbAstro. The plan is to test the refinery capabilities in space first by supplying the refinery with an “asteroid-like material” (so, a rock, but not an asteroid) that the tech will then vaporize and sort into its elemental components while in orbit. It’s a vital test of if the refinery can function in space, and if all succeeds, a critical part towards Gialich’s overall mission – becoming the first company to successfully mine asteroids.
“We have gone to asteroids before,” Gialich said. “We've landed on them, we've taken samples from them, we’ve done every step of the way, scientifically, multiple times. We just haven’t added that refining piece in, but that is actually very simple. You can prove that out on Earth, there’s not a big difference [in space].”
And Gialich really, really wants to be first. After all, whoever is,will have their pick of lucrative contracts as other private and public players rush in to gather up their share of the valuable asteroid minerals. NASA is leading a mission to explore an asteroid that some have joked could be worth $10 quintillion.
“We’re going to be the first commercial company to explore that frontier,” he promised. “There’s enough space out there for a ton of companies to exist and be successful. We’re still going to do it first.”
That, of course, remains to be seen. The SpaceX launch doesn’t yet have a window open. But when it does, it’ll be a crucial test of Astroforge’s system. And, it could eventually lead to an overhaul of our centuries-old mining system that might very well one day help the planet. At least, that’s Gialich’s overall goal.
“We’re going to save the planet, and to save the planet we need to have big, audacious ideas that really solve a critical problem we have on Earth, and we have a resource problem on Earth,” Gialich said. “Now that we’re a globalized world, there’s nowhere else to grow. There’s not an option here, this has to be done.”