Oil, Gas and Asteroids

What The Asteroid Mining Corporation can learn from the oil and gas industry


To what extent can technologies from the oil and gas industry be transferred to asteroid mining?


This report gives a description of technologies from the oil and gas industry that could be used for asteroid mining and identifies where they will have to be adapted for the asteroid mining industry. This report is important because asteroid mining is a completely new sector for both business and science where there are many challenges that need to be overcome which will require new technologies to be developed.

Although mining on an asteroid is completely different from mining and drilling here on earth there are many technologies that could be adapted and then used. This report relates these technologies to The Asteroid Mining Corporation’s current plan [1].

The technologies examined in this report are as follows:

  • Seismic exploration – a method of detecting oil and gas from the surface without having to carry out any drilling.
  • Smart drill bits – drill bits that can adapt to many different situations such as changes in rock type and structure without interventions from engineers.
  • X-ray fluoresence (XRF) and X-ray diffraction (XRD) – methods of detecting platinum and other rare earth metals from material samples.
  • S and L drill wells – the ability of oil and gas companies to turn a vertical well into a horizontal well.

Seismic Exploration

Seismic exploration is a technology which is used in the oil and gas industry to detect the locations of oil and gas. There are several different ways seismic exploration is carried out, however all of these methods require extremely large and heavy equipment to enable them to detect oil and gas 100s if not 1000s of metres down. An example of a small set up is shown in Diagram 1. This diagram shows a set up which is around 200 metres long but when off shore oil prospecting is taking place, a similar set up could be 10s of kilometres long.

Diagram 1

From Mobile seismic exploration [2].

Oil and gas are detected by the thumper truck creating vibrations in the ground which reflect off the boundaries between the different rock layers. The reflections are picked up from the geophones and passed on to the data van which analyses the data to create a 3D image of the ground with all its layers. A geologist currently working in the oil industry expressed the view that in theory this method could be used to detect platinum and other rare earth metals [3]. However, the accuracy of a large prospecting mission in the ocean for example accepts tolerances of a few metres. Greater accuracy would be required for asteroid mining.

There are several other problems with this technology. The equipment used in the entire process is extremely heavy and requires a lot of power. Often the data received from the geophones is passed to a super computer for analysis. If seismic exploration was used for asteroid mining, then either the craft would have to carry a super computer to analyse the data or have an extremely high band width connection with earth to transfer the data back. In addition, this method does not guarantee the detection of oil or gas every time and, even when it does detect oil or gas, the precise location and the quantity are not identified. Explosives are often used instead of the thumper truck, particularly when exploring the ocean floor. This approach would have the advantage of reducing the weight of the asteroid mining mission but the potential issues with using explosives in any space mission are obvious.

However, this is not to say that this method is completely useless. If the challenges and drawbacks outlined above could be overcome, this approach could have potential. On earth oil and gas is often 100s if not 1000s of metres down which means the equipment used needs to be much bigger and more powerful than what would be needed when mining an asteroid. The Asteroid Mining Corporation (AMC) are only planning on drilling down a few metres for their first few missions. This opens up the possibility of using seismic exploration in a very small and compact way that is extremely accurate in detecting platinum and other rare earth metals a few metres down to an accuracy of a few centimetres. At first glance the power problem seems a major concern, however a lot of the power used in the system in Diagram 1 comes from the thumper truck and the computer. When observing the rock just a few metres down less powerful vibrations will be required, and less data will be collected. Therefore, the weight and power demands for both collecting and analysing the data will be much less. This also means that explosives are not required.

A highly accurate and compact version of seismic exploration could be used on the surface of an asteroid to understand the structure, identify any fractures that could be exploited and ultimately locate any platinum or other rare earth metals contained in the asteroid. However, the main technological challenge will be developing equipment which is sufficiently accurate.

Smart Drill Bits

Smart drill bits have the potential to be adapted to asteroid mining. Smart drill bits used in the oil and gas industry can recognize different rock layers while drilling and can automatically adjust without intervention from the surface. They recognise different rock layers and types in two ways. The first is with sensors on the drill bit itself and the second is in the change in resistance of the spinning drill as it drills through different a material. For example if the drill hits bedrock the resistance in the drill will increase because bedrock is harder to drill through[4].

This could be extremely beneficial for asteroid mining as all operations will occur at least a few light minutes away from Earth and it is essential that the craft can carry out as much of the work automatically as possible. This means that the software and hardware for this technology has already been developed and it is possible that very little adaptation for this technology would be required. The range of bit designs available from the oil and gas industry is vast and when the asteroid geological structure and content are identified through offsite observations, the perfect drill bit can be selected for the job. Potential problems such as over-heating, speed and durability concerns would require less testing and analysis because of the extensive testing already carried out by oil and gas manufacturers. Therefore, there is much to be gained from exploiting the extensive expertise and knowledge of drilling through different materials which already exists in the oil and gas industry.

Once again, however, weight, size and power requirements are major drawbacks with this technology. For example, drill bits alone can weigh from a 10s of kilograms to well over a tonne for one drill bit as shown in Diagram 2.

Diagram 2

From: Directional Drilling [5]

Diameter of the drill bit is also a possible problem because the oil and gas industry drill extremely wide wells compared to what the AMC are going to want to do, at least initially, when mining asteroids. This will limit the off the shelf options available.

However, power requirements are reduced because a smaller drill bit comes with a lower power requirement. If the power requirement is still too great, then the revolutions per minute (RPM) of the drill could be reduced to combat this issue but this obviously increases the risks of the drill not being able to penetrate the asteroid. If the drill bits employed by the oil and gas industry are too big and heavy, a drill bit would have to be designed especially for the asteroid mission but the same design principles could be used.

Smart drill bits from oil and gas could have many benefits for the asteroid mining industry. They could be used to create anchor points for machinery atop the asteroid to stop the equipment from getting kickoff because of the extremely low gravity, except where the structure of the asteroid is not suitable for anchoring. The smart drill bits could also be used to follow rich concentrations of platinum material as the concentrations of platinum change throughout the asteroid. To maximise the impact of this technology, research on the structure of the asteroid would need to be carried out to ensure that it is stable enough to add anchors.

X-ray Fluoresence and X-ray Diffraction

X-ray fluoresence (XRF) and X-ray diffraction (XRD) are similar technologies that could be adapted to asteroid mining. They both use X-rays to excite electrons in the first shell/level of an atom in an element. As a result, the excited electrons are ejected, and this creates a vacancy for other electrons in higher electron levels/shells to fill. When the electron moves from the higher shell into the lower shell this causes a burst of energy to be released, and this burst of energy can be detected with a sensor. The energy released has a unique value and every element has corresponding energy value that is unique to every electron jump. As a result, the two values can be matched up and the element can be identified as well as the percentage quality presence or the number parts per millions (ppm) in the sample.

Diagram 3

From XRD Mineralogy & XRF Analysis Presentation [6]

Diagram 3 represents a typical XRF spectrum which shows the elements present with the percentage quantity and its uncertainty.

X-ray diffraction (XRD) is very similar to XRF however the X-rays are rotated around the sample and the changes in diffraction are calculated. Because the X-rays diffract different amounts depending on the element, the element can be identified. The quantities measured can also be detected because of the rotation of the X-rays.

The main difference between XRD and XRF is that XRF can only identify the quantity of platinum presence in a sample whereas XRD can identify exactly which compounds of platinum are present and in which quantities. This is important because, as shown in Table 1 below, there are many different platinum compounds and when mining an asteroid, it might be in the company’s best interest to target those with the greatest economic value.

Table 1

List of the most common compounds of Platinum

Platinum(IV) Hydroxide Pt(OH)4
Platinum(II) Fluoride PtF2
Platinum(IV) Phosphate Pt3(PO4)4
Platinum(II) Nitrate Pt(NO3)2
Cisplatin (cis-platinum(II) Chloride Diammine]] PtCl2(NH3)2
Platinum(IV) Sulfate Pt(SO4)2
Platinum(IV) Carbonate Pt(CO3)2
Platinum(III) Oxide Pt2O3
Platinum(II) Sulfide PtS
Platinum(II) Selenide PtSe
Platinum(IV) Cyanide Pt(CN)4
Platinum Dioxide PtO2
Diamminedichloroplatinum(II) Pt(NH3)2Cl2
Platinum(II) Hydroxide Pt(OH)2
Platinum(IV) Perchlorate Pt(ClO4)4
Platinum(IV) Dichromate Pt(Cr2O7)2
Platinum Iodide PtI2
Platinum(II) Carbonate PtCO3
Platinum(II) Phosphate Pt3(PO4)2
Platinum(IV) Fluoride PtF4
Platinum(II) Arsenide Pt3As2
Platinum(II) Cyanide Pt(CN)2
Platinum(IV) Chloride PtCl4
Platinum(IV) Nitrate Pt(NO3)4
Platinum(IV) Iodate Pt(IO3)4
Platinum(IV) Phosphide Pt3P4
Platinum(IV) Nitride Pt3N4
Platinum(II) Chlorite Pt(ClO2)2
Platinum(III) Oxide Trihydrate Pt2O3.3H2O
Platinum(IV) Sulfide PtS2
Platinum(IV) Chromate Pt(CrO4)2

From Endmemo [7]

The main use of XRD and XTF technologies could be to analyse the material already mined while drilling is going on. This analysis would allow the AMC to establish whether the material that is being mined is platinum rich or not. They could then decide to store platinum rich material and eject the rest of the material into space. XRD and XTF technologies would also allow them, with the help of S and L shapes wells (see below for a discussion of this technology) to follow high rich platinum material in the asteroid if it follows a vein like structure.

The key advantage of XRD and XTF technologies is that the analysis of the material can be done onsite which is essential for asteroid mining. In addition, these technologies are already available in small compact units.

However, there are also two main drawbacks. The first is XRD and XRF combined do not replace laboratory tests, they only complement them. This could be a major problem because if the oil and gas industry are not using these technologies as a replacement for laboratories then this might be a warning that the asteroid mining sector. This is where further research and testing should be done to test the accuracies of reliability and the XRD and XRF methods.

The other major drawback of the small compact systems is that they both require an engineer to be onsite. This is not an option for asteroid mining, certainly in the industry’s infancy. This means that software will have to be developed so that these technologies can be controlled remotely.

If these disadvantages can be overcome, this technology could be used as the main tool for detecting the platinum concentrations while drilling. This will add reassurance to the mission so that the material that is brought back from the asteroid is rich in platinum. Further research should be made into how accurate these methods are and if they can be carried out remotely.

S and L Drill Wells

Diagram 4 illustrates clearly the development of the oil and gas industry in the past 70 years. This development of capabilities and experience is why the oil and gas industry provides such a strong model for the asteroid mining industry.

Diagram 4

From vertical and directional drilling technologies [6]

Ever since the 1980’s the oil and gas industry has been able to drill L shaped wells as this is the most efficient way of drilling for oil and gas. This technology could be extremely beneficial for asteroid mining especially when the asteroid mining industry is more mature. If the high rich platinum material is close to the centre of an asteroid using this technology means that the same well can be used to drill into this material at different angles. This saves time and money because new well would not have to be drilled every time and it was for these reasons that the oil and gas industry developed this technology.

It is the ability of different parts of the drill bit to rotate at different rates which allows the L shaped wells to be drilled e.g. the left part of the drill can programmed to drill faster or slower than the right and as a result the well direction can be changed from vertical to horizontal. There is no real limitation on how fast it can change direction, however too sharp a turn could make the well extremely unstable and the collapse of a well will have major financial implications in terms of lost or damaged equipment and the need to redrill the well.

S shaped wells can also be created using the same principle and these could be extremely beneficial when mining for rare earth metals because they could follow the veins of platinum material. However, the oil and gas industry avoid creating too many bends because this weakens the strength and stability of the well.

This technology could be adapted for asteroid mining because the S and L shape wells combined with XRF and XRD could allow the drill to follow platinum veins in the asteroid. The drill can also break off from the main vertical well to drill into possible extremely rich pockets of platinum. Because very little is known about the content structure of asteroids, it is possible that there could be large concentrations of iron close to the platinum deposits. The S and L shaped wells approach would permit the circumvention of these iron deposits to enable the mining of the platinum. This would avoid the mining of uneconomical iron and prevent any unnecessary shortening of the life of the drill bit.

Of course, this technology would have to undergo significant testing and adaptions before it could be used for asteroid mining. However, the fact that the drill diameter required for asteroid mining would be much smaller than that used for drilling for oil and gas could lead to some major benefits. e.g. there could be many more bends in the well without threatening its stability because of the smaller diameter and depth.

S and L shape wells could be used for following high concentration veins of platinum throughout the asteroid which would save time drilling a new well. They could also allow branches off the main well to be made which could help find the location of the platinum in its highest concentration. The main problem that will have to be solved will be the stability of the well if branches or curves are added although, as stated above, the smaller size could mean that this is not an insurmountable issue.


This report has established that the oil & gas industry has the potential to be an excellent source of technologies that could be adapted to asteroid mining. Four major technologies have been identified and described and their potential applications and challenges analysed. Seismic exploration, smart drill bits, XRF & XRD and S and L shaped wells have all been shown as worthy of further research and analysis to determine their effectiveness in the context of asteroid mining. It is still unclear if asteroid mining will be in our near or distant future, however this report provides an insight into how this monumental but exciting innovation can be made easier.


[1] https://asteroidminingcorporation.co.uk/ Summer 2018

[2] https://aip.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1063/1.4952659

[3] Private conversation with the author

[4] https://www.ogj.com/articles/print/volume-115/issue-11/special-report-drilling-technology-update/smart-bits-advance-drilling-efficiency.html

[5] http://directionaldrilling.blogspot.com/2011/07/drill-collars.html

[6] https://www.olympus-ims.com/en/beyond-the-elements-xrd-mineralogy-xrf-analysis-for-advanced-mud-logging/

[7] http://www.endmemo.com/chem/common/platinum.php

[8] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40948-016-0038-y