Google’s at it again. Last week it was redefining tech journalism, now it’s on to space mining. The tech behemoth’s ambitions are not limited to the Internet, or even global domination- it’s taking a crack at outer space. Google CEO Larry Page and the company’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt have joined forces with Avatar director James Cameron and X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis for a space venture that will possibly involve mining asteroids. On the bright side, if it doesn’t work out, they can make a movie out of it. Oh wait, didn’t Cameron already do that in 2010 with Avatar?¹
The venture, aptly named Planetary Resources Inc., (I love the sci-fi pastiche) plans to “overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP” and “help ensure humanity’s prosperity,” according to a press release issued by the company this week.¹
And why not? Dominating the Internet was getting so passé.
TIME FOR RENEWAL
Google’s interest in global energy policy is not new. Way back in November of 2007, Larry Page announced a strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal, which Google entitled “RE<C” (renewable energy cheaper than coal). The initiative originally focused on advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potential breakthrough technologies.
As Larry Page explained at the time, "We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centers… We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal….We expect this would be a good business for us as well."
Last November, however, Google killed the RE<C program. “Other companies,” Google said, “were in a better position to advance specific energy technologies.”²
Or maybe Page and Co saw an opportunity for richer pickings in space mining.
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
Earlier this year, entrepreneur and X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis (whose name couldn’t be better for this article) hinted he was about to unveil something amazing: a startup that will mine asteroids for precious metals.
“Since my childhood I’ve wanted to do one thing, be an asteroid miner,” (actually a very common boyhood aspiration, right up there with fireman and baseball player) Diamandis told Forbes. “So stay tuned on that one.”
And now he can realize this dream with Planetary Resources Inc.’s asteroid mining initiative.
Apparently Diamandis has long talked about creating an ‘exothermic reaction,” — science jargon for a process that releases energy in the form of light or heat, often in the form of an explosion – in space.
The Forbes article goes on to point out that space scientists have long talked about mining asteroids, which could be rich in rare earths essential to the electronics industry.
Say that again?
HANDS OFF MY RARE EARTH
Remember that brouhaha last month between the US, Japan, etc. and China over China’s rare earth metal hoarding? It was a big enough story to mobilize Obama.
An excerpt from an article in Mashable on March 13th:
The U.S. will argue before the World Trade Organization (WTO) that China’s limitations on its rare earth mineral exports are unfair, President Obama announced Tuesday. The hard-to-find minerals are used in the production of high-tech equipment such as smartphones (my emphasis) and hybrid cars.
Obama also insisted that the U.S. needs fair access to the rare metals in order to ensure that American companies can use them to develop advanced homegrown technologies.
“Being able to manufacture advanced batteries and hybrid cars in America is too important for us to stand by and do nothing,” Obama says. “We’ve got to take control of our energy future, and we can’t let that energy industry take root in some other country because they were allowed to break the rules.”
Good for you, Mr. President. But why are rare earths causing such an uproar?
As it turns out, in 2011 China produced 97 percent of the world's supply. Beyond being critical for the production of high-tech commercial equipment such as smart phones, rare earths are also used in sonar, radar satellites, lasers and precision strike munitions.³
In other words the US needs rare earths to sustain its cutting-edge military. This problem was so concerning to the government that in mid-December 2011, Congress passed the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, which included a requirement for a study to be submitted to the Secretary of Defense this year on the feasibility, costs, and market effects of starting a new rare earths stockpile.³
It sounds like these rare earths are a pretty big deal for the future of commercial and military technology worldwide.
And guess what many asteroids are chalk full of? Yep, you guessed it: rare earth metals.
Pardon me for my skepticism, but with the Internet’s dramatic shift to mobile, coupled with Google’s intense competition with Apple and others in the mobile space, Google’s involvement in the Planetary Resources, Inc. initiative smacks of corporate opportunism at best, and diabolical James Bondesque baddie practices, at worst.
And don’t forget about the US Government’s desperation to stockpile rare earths for future military needs.
“If I have a near-term shot at becoming a billionaire, it will probably be through my interest in asteroid mining,” Diamandis recently said.
Don’t worry, Mr. Diamandis, you won’t be alone. Google will be right there with you.
¹ Mashable, “Google Execs, James Cameron Plan Space Venture”
² Mashable, “Google’s Search for Clean Energy”