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Asteroid mineral extraction method enters testing phase

Space Industry

An international expert in flow chemistry has begun testing a unique micro-flow solvent extraction system as a first step toward mining asteroids.

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University of Adelaide Professor Volker Hessel has begun testing his continuous-flow processing extraction method on mimic asteroid ores to assess the technology’s ability to withdraw high levels of nickel and cobalt from space matter.

The flow chemistry solvent extraction method has already proved successful in terrestrial mines but Professor Hessel said asteroids pose a new problem as they contain adjacent metals that do not exist here.

“On Earth you have platinum, gold and copper together, or nickel on cobalt together, but on an asteroid you may have gold and cobalt together,” Professor Hessel said.

“This method was already verified for adjacent mineral separation on Earth but now we’re applying it to this new kind of problem.”

Professor Hessel said providing a solution to this problem would be invaluable.

“There are trillions of asteroids in existence and there are trillions of dollars in value to what it can offer,” he said.

“One asteroid, a small one, has 10 times the depth of the USA.”

Professor Hessel said the microphysics method of flow chemistry is considered a prime approach to chemical manufacturing and space mining because it is compact and able to operate under microgravity in a vacuum.

He said this flow chemistry method is the most cutting-edge chemical process in the sector and begins with two pumps.

One pump contains a water solvent carrying the metals and the other solvent contains the extracting solvent, kerosine, which carries a scavenger molecule that “catches” the metals.

These solvents flow from their separate pumps into a single pipe before being cut by a “knife-like” apparatus to form separate droplets. These drops then travel into coiled flow inverter, which enhances purification, before entering a membrane separator.

The solution then enters two separate collection vessels. One vessel collects the water solvent, while the other contains the kerosine solvent and the metal particles.

Professor Hessel said the first round of this flow chemistry method will achieve 30 per cent purification and repeating the process will eventually lead to total purity.

“The scavenger transports the metal to a new place out of the mixture, and this kind of extraction is much better than other methods because you can separate the mixture much easier,” he said..

“Our product is successful because it’s modular, highly automated and can work in no gravity conditions, so it will work in space.”

Professor Hessel and his team plan to approach international and national players for commercialisation after publishing the results of their year-long experiment.

“We’re looking at microgravity research and manufacturing firm SpaceTango [for commercialisation] but we are also turning to leading industry figures, such as NASA.”

“There is a big fight about space laws of who owns the moon and who owns Mars, and this opportunity is representative of a global space race for resources.

“We would like the minds in South Australia to lead the way.”

South Australia has been a significant player in the nation’s space industry and is positioning itself to play a major role in the nation’s emerging space industry through the South Australian Space Industry Centre.

The centre hosted the 7th South Australia Space Forum today in Adelaide, at which more than 600 delegates discussed themes such as the economics of space technology and the regulation of Australian space activity.

Adelaide is the home to the Australian Space Agency, the newly created SmartSat CRC and more than 80 companies involved in the space industry.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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