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Editorial comment

“We want to become the Exxon of space,” are the ambitious words of Eric Anderson, one of the co-founders of Planetary Resources, whose Mission Statement is equally as large-scale: “Planetary Resources is bringing the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence.” The company aims to harness the valuable mineral resources of asteroids; in particular, 1500 asteroids that orbit the Earth and are relatively easy to access. The company believes that ultimately, iron, nickel and platinum can be robotically mined on the most resource-rich asteroids, and water discoveries, once broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, can be used to power spacecraft. The project has so far received backing from a variety of affluent investors; from Aliens Director James Cameron to blue chip engineering company Bechtel. The project is sure to be an exciting one to follow in the coming years, possessing as it does, just the right balance between sci-fi adventure and practical credibility, (as reflected in the milieu of its investors) to keep people interested in its progress. 

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We have, however, collectively become trained by the movies to anticipate some degree of a ‘sticky ending’ to befall any highly pioneering and ambitious expedition into the unknown. The original Alien film is based around a commercial spaceship hauling 20 million t of mineral ore back to Earth that, to sum up, meets a very unfortunate end. In James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, the pioneering terraformers (atmosphere engineers) who venture into space to make the climate of an alien planet habitable to humans are again, to put it mildly, sadly and unexpectedly prevented from fulfilling their mission. The fear of the unknown and exploring new territories is strong in the human consciousness, and this is reflected in the movies we produce and consume. In the thoughtful sci-fi movie Contact, an extra-terrestrial being reflects on the human race: “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” It is our innate propensity to dwell on worst-case scenarios that can often stymie new ventures and exploration. Essentially, there are few people who are truly prepared to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before.’ I think we are lucky to work in an industry that really does buck this trend. 

From shale gas to Arctic drilling, to ultra-deep offshore exploration and now outer space; there are few places that hydrocarbon engineers are unwilling to go, or unable to develop. Another new discovery with plenty of box-office appeal is ‘ice gas,’ or methane hydrate deposits, which have been found and successfully extracted from under the seabed offshore Japan. This ‘burnable ice’ consists of methane trapped within a water crystal structure, and can be found under Arctic and Antarctic ice, sedimentary deposits along continental divides and deepwater sediments: reserves so difficult to access they may as well be in space. With this offshore extraction, Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corp. (JOGMEC) has potentially opened up a new super-resource that could change the face of the world’s energy mix.

It is estimated by The US Geological Survey that volumes of methane hydrates alone could represent double the reserves of all other known fossil fuels on the planet. 1 ft3 of methane hydrate holds around 160 ft3 of natural gas, which means, on the downside, that the gas has 10 times the global warming impact of CO2. The cost to the environment of large scale commercial production is not yet understood, and safe extraction of the gas from the molecules is a highly complex process. But as with shale gas, it’s likely to be only a matter of time until ice gas, along with asteroid minerals, are commercialised and brought to market.

So long as our industry keeps focusing on achieving the best-case scenario in the safest and most responsible way possible, we can avoid inspiring Hollywood to write our industry into its next disaster blockbuster…