Whether it is Star Trek or Avatar, the adventure of new worlds has always fascinated us and numerous stories, spectacularly depicted through the use of latest technology, kept us engrossed in a new world. At the core of these fascinating tales of fiction is mankind's desire to explore and find new worlds and resources. In the Energy and Mining industries, available and accessible natural resources play the most important role closely followed by enabling technologies. Finding them, extracting them and utilizing them, in the most efficient and ecologically sensitive manner would pretty much sum up what companies in these industries are looking to do.
In Avatar, the point of conflict in the plot arises because of a rare mineral called 'Unobtanium' which is possibly the most expensive mineral then. The demand for this mineral is due to its rarity and importance in resolving the energy crisis on earth. While this take may seem far-fetched, with a little looking around and reading up, it does not really seem to be so. There are people (including James Cameron, the maker of Avatar who is one of the backers of a company that is looking to expand Earth's resource base) and companies actually putting money where we think it as just fiction.
Newer methods of extraction like 'Fraccing' for Shale gas, the Oil sands in Canada, the Bakken reserves in the US, have changed the energy fortunes of these countries, but mankind is going beyond just newer methods and discovering new reserves. Frozen hydrocarbons (Natural gas Hydrates) found deep below sea, close to shorelines could be the next big game changer. Most of the oil super majors are believed to be already investing in finding and extracting these reserves. The availability of these reserves will pretty much reverse the geographic focus of oil companies. With land and sea covered, one would wonder can space be left far beyond.
Frozen Hydrocarbons are believed to exist on lakes on Titan (a moon of Saturn) and mining asteroids may not be as fictional as we think it to be. Of course, we presume all the challenges of outer space like lack of gravity, atmosphere, and transportation are all managed through technology. A startup even announced plans to send robotic ships to outer space to mine asteroids! Another startup announced plans to do this and also work on beaming clean energy back to earth. With these interesting developments and all the wonderful movies I keep catching up on, I had a relook at an article 'The New Journey to the Center of the Earth'. I asked the author Ken Matthews, Vice-President and Head of Natural Resources at Wipro for his views on space being the new frontier.
Ken says, "The current exploration mode we are entering will probably continue. That is, smaller unknown startup exploration companies are currently taking an increasing share of exploration risk, and the majors will buy companies or sites from these companies once reserves are identified. This trend will likely continue in outer space and therefore the majors will allow smaller startups to investigate this new frontier and should long term, sustainable, low cost mines be proven (ore reserve and technologically), the majors may then enter this race".
His article also focuses on the concept of 'Digital Mining' where we are moving away from manned operations even on earth with the trend to reduce costs and improve safety further by having automated and remotely managed operations.
Given these perspectives, technology is going to be the big enabler - be it in exploring outer space and extracting resources or finding better ways of conserving energy and resources. The new frontier does not seem so far-fetched now, does it? Would love to hear your thoughts.