A Battery Economy Won’t Happen Without Space Mining

“…What we need in the United States if we want to transition our fleet to electric and on top if you decide to have grid storage so that we can start getting to renewable .. by 2035 and my estimates, and I could be a little bit wrong, you might be building somewhere along 20 or 30 Giga factories…” Venkat Srinivasan on Science Friday.

We all agree. An oil-based economy has run its course. Even the ones who argue against it, know that the end is near. They simply have trouble letting go of something in which they have a stake. But if we think that moving away from fossil fuel is going to save the planet, we are in for a big surprise, and not a good one. In fact, the only way we can abandon our dependence on oil and fulfill our grand visions of tomorrow is by going to space.

It is true that the Earth has enough minerals to support a new era of energy. Just like it had enough whales to kickstart the Industrial Revolution, enough coal to support it, and enough crude oil to sustain the following unprecedented growth. The problem is not about what can be found or not on the planet. The problem is the scale, extraction, and refinement. Our green future will demand more than simply changing the source of energy and more about where we can get it and how we can extract it.

Batteries need as many as 20 minerals, including cobalt, lithium, and nickel as well as other rare earth metals. Most of the rare metals are found in China and more than 60% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Take a second to Google “DRC and cobalt” and you will soon find out the social and environmental realities of what it takes to get cobalt into your car and smartphone. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2030, global demand for this mineral could be 47 times more than it was in 2017. And that is only one component in a complicated production chain. As for lithium, Bolivia has more of it than China, Australia, and the United States combined. The South American country ranks 124 in the Corruption Index, just behind Pakistan, and is on par with Rwanda when it comes to poverty. While we are confident there is no lithium on the Moon, some studies estimate that Mars could have reserves that would dwarf what is found on the Earth.

We thought there was enough fish in the ocean for everyone. We thought there would be oil forever. We always think there is enough of something until there isn’t. And lithium won’t be different. Let’s be honest, it is naive to think we can develop, evolve and grow without having an impact on the planet. And now that we have the capacity to go to space, we should do everything we can and figure out how and where away from the Earth we can extract the resources we need. The health of Earth depends on it.