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17 July 2019

Extracting Ores, and Moon Landings



The extraction of metal ores from the earth is a tough business, and as technology advances - which should, on the surface, presumably make the task easier - so the requirements get progressively harder as the easy sources of ore are depleted. So it stays a difficult operation, even though extraction methods become ever more sophisticated.

I once visited the site of an old silver mine in the middle of Norway. The extraction method there was to burn fires up against the rock face and then throw cold water at the hot rock, which caused the surface to fracture so it could be chipped off enabling the horizontal mineshaft to advance a few millimetres at a time. I know that technique was used elsewhere as well, across Europe, but what particularly struck me as remarkable about this location was the length of time involved. Generations worked on this project, and it went through many generations before any silver was extracted. Think about that; the community spent its life advancing a shaft into a mountain, in the expectation that future generations would find silver there. And finally they did - and then a bit later, the deposit was played out. With modern techniques, that deposit - close to the surface - would have been child’s play, but with what was available at the time, it was the work of generations.

Then there are those haunting photographs of the Chilkoot Trail, a seemingly endless queue of people, weighed down by picks, shovels, tents and food, wearily putting one foot in front of the other up the steep, snowy slope that would take them over the Pass leading to the newly-discovered Yukon goldfields. Lots of them died in the attempt, and very, very few found their fortune. The world had moved on; the ancient Norwegians wouldn’t have been able to cope with that one. But again, for a modern miner, with the ability to build roads across virtually anything, the helicopters to take the miners in and out, and something more advanced than crude panning - again, child’s play.

But it gets tougher, as we come up to date. At Norilsk, they had to drill through the Arctic tundra to get to the rich underground deposits. Originally, of course, hi-tech had nothing to do with that - it was pure, simple slave labour, with expendable miners. That’s in the past, now, but the challenges of the terrain remain, tamed by modern mining equipment. And in Labrador, for example, at the iron ore mines, the human element can survive the outdoor cold for about thirty minutes or so, but the mechanised gear keeps the operations alive.

So where is the next challenge to come from? 

Well, politico-geographic, for sure; think DRC, Afghanistan, Mongolia, to name a few. And a couple of generations ago, deep offshore oil would have been regarded as a fanciful impossibility to drill, so maybe we are genuinely on the cusp of undersea mining. But perhaps, if we think back fifty years this month, another direction beckons. 

I recall July 1969. I was a schoolboy, on a CCF camp at an RAF base near Cambridge, and we got special dispensation to stay in the Mess beyond our normal curfew time to watch as Apollo 11’s crew made that giant leap for mankind. Maybe the challenge for the next generation will be asteroid mining. After all, we know the minerals are there, and we know technology has so far met the challenges put before it - so why not? 

Yes, I know the eco-fringes would want my head on a platter for even suggesting this kind of stuff, but you know what? We all pretty much want what the extractive industries produce, so I would rather go forward with technological advance, than backward with fear of the future.    


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