Saturday, September 12, 2015

"We Are About to Start Mining Hydrothermal Vents on the Ocean Floor" (now with added alchemist's fallacy"

From Aeon Magazine:
Forty years ago, scientists found alien life. Not on another planet, but on Earth, in the deep sea, in places where plumes of steam and nutrients heated by volcanic activity fed entire ecologies of creatures adapted to harness chemical energy rather than energy from the sun.

The discovery redefined life’s biophysical possibilities, and scientists and explorers have since charted another world. Or, rather, many worlds: there are more than 500 hydrothermal vent fields scattered across Earth’s seafloors, containing not just the iconic smoking vents but volcano slopes called cobalt crusts and seabed plains known as manganese nodule fields. These are, in a sense, the rain forests and mountains and prairies of the deep sea. Yet that life is now threatened. 

Rich in gold and copper and rare-earth metals—essential ingredients for our digital—hydrothermal vent fields are targets of a nascent deep-sea mining industry that’s slowly but steadily developing the machinery to go after them. Companies and countries have filed prospecting permits or secured mineral rights on 20 percent of the vent fields; the first deep-sea mining operation is expected to break seabed in 2018 off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

That fate of our ocean’s hydrothermal vent fields depends on how carefully they are mined. Mining can be destructive, but it can also be done judiciously, with attention to its consequences on life other than our own. “We’re going to have to make a choice,” wrote deep-sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler on Twitter recently, “between disposable technology and ecosystems we’ll never see.”...MORE
We looked at this back in 2012 with "Screw the Asteroids: "DeepGreen strikes deal with Glencore for undersea mining metals"":
I'm a bit late getting to this but when you see "Glencore" and a privately held Vancouver company in the same headline it gets my attention....
We also have dozens of posts on asteroid mining with one of the more instructive being "The Price of Gold in the Year 2160".

See also, from the link-vault, the Financial Times' July 2015 piece "It’s tough turning ideas into gold":
Alchemy, the ancient art of turning base metals into precious ones, was built on more than one misapprehension. The obvious error is that it is impossible to turn lead into gold. (Not quite impossible, actually. Chemistry will not do the job but a particle accelerator will, although not cheaply. In 1980, researchers bombarded the faintly lead-like metal bismuth and created a few atoms of gold. The cost was a less-than-economical rate of one quadrillion dollars an ounce.)

But there is a subtler mistake — not a scientific one but a matter of economics. “The alchemist fallacy” is the belief that once a simple method is found for turning lead into gold, gold will continue to be precious. We don’t have to rely on economic theory to refute this conclusion, because we have a fascinating case study of a close parallel....MORE
Here's Yale's own William Nordhaus' "Schumpeterian Profits and the Alchemist Fallacy" and, if you don't mind getting depressed as you consider how you've been spending your time, here's his c.v.

I count at  least three Nobel Laureates with whom he has deigned to co-author.
Here's another of our pieces on the good professor.