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Scientist finds new water source - mining asteroids

By Farren Collins | 2017-05-20 07:14:57.0

The solution to South Africa’s water crisis could be out of this world‚ thanks to an award winning idea from local scientist Jonathan Lun.

When Lun‚ 31‚ isn’t designing satellites for the government at his day job‚ the space engineer is designing hand-sized prototype rockets that use metal for fuel.

The effect of Lun’s idea is that‚ when it is scaled up‚ rockets could be sent into space to land on asteroids containing water and precious metals‚ which can be mined and brought back to Earth.

“Currently‚ there is no rocket technology that can do that because of the amount of fuel you would need for a return trip for a rocket that size‚” said Lun‚ who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Lun has developed a method to super-heat metal‚ in a way similar to a spark plug or welding machine‚ so that it turns into plasma which can be used to fuel and power rockets.

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The technology would allow rockets to use asteroid metal as fuel‚ “so that you don’t need to carry all the fuel you need to get there and back”.

His idea has been scientifically demonstrated and his research published in international journals.

“We are going to start running out of metal in the next couple of decades‚ because we have been consuming more and more‚ and mines are extracting everything that can be extracted from the Earth‚” the Stellenbosch resident said.

“To address that problem‚ people have started looking to exploring asteroids in space‚ because many of them contain large quantities of various metals and water. But to make it useful we have to be able to bring it back to Earth.”

The idea earned Lun a place at the Singularity University’s nine-week Global Solutions Programme in Silicon Valley‚ after he won the Southern African Global Impact Challenge this month.

Lun nearly didn’t enter the competition but did eventually because he had “nothing to do”. He is now “thrilled about the opportunity and I just hope that I can make South Africa proud”.