Oxygen Farming


Oxygen farming is an industrial extraction process practiced in asteroid and planetoid belts to support permanent human habitation of such belts, to enable large scale asteroid mining.
It has its origins in the Belter cultures and economies of the Sol system. In those dim far-off pre-HSD times, even interplanetary transport of oxygen was too expensive for the ever-frugal Belters, with a keen eye on their profit and loss. Then and now, at the initial phase of resource extraction, usually in a newly opened area, there is often a sharp mismatch between importation costs and the costs of obtaining oxygen locally.
Conversely, conventional asteroid miners are often extracting highly valuable metals, rare earths, etc, in staggering quantities. Into this arbitrage opportunity steps the oxygen farmer, an asteroid miner who specialises in locating and refining oxygen-rich asteroids or planetoids, to trade at advantage with the local asteroid mining population, often acting as a key enabler for the mining population to expand dramatically.

Farming Methods

The art and science of oxygen farming involves locating asteroids with appropriate chemical compositions, such that the oxygen can be extracted efficiently, at low energy cost, with good economies of scale and financially beneficial refinery by-products. Typically water ice asteroids are mined first (or indeed may already have been exploited before the oxygen farmers become necessary). There then follows the normal sequence of primary resource extraction operations everywhere. The easiest and highest-yield resources are located first.
As simple resources are exploited, capability grows, scarcity increases, prices rises, and the breakeven investment for viable refining rises. Thus progressively more complex and expensive refining operations become commercially viable. This pattern is generally repeated in each new system that is opened, with each system posing particular challenges due to the specific astrogeological evolution of that star system during formation and post-formation.

OFarming in Belter Culture

Oxygen farming is associated with a subsection of Belter and Vikinger cultures that pride themselves on specialised knowledge of the best techniques of locating, identifying and refining a wide variety of oxygen sources in a staggeringly wide variety of contexts. It is a process that defies industrialisation, hence the term 'farming' - in fact in many ways it is more similar to primitive hunting and gathering. Oxygen farmers place great value in their wit (Vikinger) or nouse (Belter), the knowledge - both factual and intuitive - built up over generations and handed down from one generation to the next, jealously guarded. Belter and Vikinger oxygen farmers have been known to engage in murders or long running blood feuds over stolen gems of wit or nouse, with a passion hardly less than that which is applied to the Belter culture arch-crime of claim-jacking.

OFarming Syndicates

This individualism and secrecy is another reason why industrialisation of the entire process end to end is challenging. It has led to the formation, since the beginning of the practice in the Sol Belt, of syndicates, sometimes linking into syndicates of syndicates, for purposes of trading and marketing the light product, as well as exchanging other key resources, cooperation, self defence, and the operation of basic cultural laws (without reference to government or authority). This subcultural pattern fits well with both cultures, linking in to Belter individualism and Vikinger clan structure. While a degree of industrialisation is possible, and is practiced, the greatest conventional commercial opportunity is by interfacing with the syndicates to organise their activity, market the light product to the primary miners and market the primary miners' heavy product (metals etc) to wealthier systems. Many low level syndicates are interlocked with higher level distribution syndicates that handle these roles. But it remains a core value that every miner is paid his due. At best, this multi-level syndication in effect allows individuals and independent clans to function as if they were part of a quasi-corporation, with attendant benefits of economies of scale in marketing, distribution, pricing, and even a degree of protection.

With the falling cost of interplanetary transport, systems with accessible habitable worlds see less need for the oxygen farmers to jumpstart asteroid belt exploitation. However the practice continues to have a vital role in opening up commercial resource exploitation of systems where the habitable world is not easily accessible to the mining community for political reasons. As ever, changes in the commodity price of any given primary resource or heavy product can change the economics of the breakeven point overnight, resuscitating belts previously considered mined out, or opening up new exploitation of belts previously deemed not economically viable.
And of course the reverse is true. Hence oxygen farmers, as much or more so than primary miners, must always remain flexible, versatile, mobile, and alert to the winds of commercial change.