Australian researchers are developing techniques for asteroid mining.

Space is full of resources useful here on Earth, and advances in space exploration are beginning to put these treasure troves within reach.

There are a number of high value asteroids that are closer to the Earth that Adelaide is to Alice Springs, and a team at the University of Adelaide wants to have a dig.

Professor Volker Hessel, an expert in chemical engineering, is developing an intensified continuous-flow metal solvent extraction process which is faster and more selective than existing processes and is fine-tuned to the specific raw materials found in asteroids.

“Continuous-flow chemistry is proven technology. The process extracts metal by mixing and separating solvents. Successive passes of the chemicals through the process results in complete extraction of the metals,” he says.

“Asteroid-born metals co-exist in different combinations and concentrations from those found in terrestrial rock, so one of the challenges that the team has is understanding how these may be successfully extracted.

“This new disruptive technology is needed as traditional technology does not provide the solution.”

The continuous-flow technology is scalable and can operate in zero gravity and a vacuum – key elements for space mineral extraction.

Professor Hessel’s US partner Space Tango is developing expanded flow chemistry capabilities in orbit.

In May, they launched a mission that included, on board, the first processing lab assessing liquid separation.

An array of space-focused companies is eyeing up the vast potential rewards on offer from the trillions of asteroids each worth millions of dollars in raw materials.

“In the same way that colonialists and explorers exploited the resources of the New World about 400 years ago, today’s pioneering asteroid miners are reaching out to exploit riches in space,” says Professor Hessel.

“There are 17 missions currently underway for space resource exploitation. The NASA OSIRIS-Rex mission to Bennu asteroid will return with samples in 2023.

“Continuous-flow chemistry technology must be perfected to use as little water as possible. While launching costs are projected to fall in the mid-term, they will remain a serious point to consider. Instead of needing hundreds of tonnes of water to extract one tonne of metal, development of the technology may mean that less than 10 tonnes are required.

“Many alternative approaches are being investigated such as realigning asteroid orbits to make them more accessible, processing on the Moon, Mars or lower Earth orbit using available water, and processing on asteroids themselves or in the near-Earth orbit.

“Exploitation of the wealth locked up in asteroids will only become a reality when other disruptive elements come together and it is economically as well as technically viable,” says Professor Hessel.