What is Mars going to make?

13 March 02019

Triangular trades have been a durable and visible part of the history of trade, especially during the British Empire. These kinds of trades tend to arise where there is substantial differences in the demand of particular goods. As Martian colonization is seemingly closer than ever, it’s still unclear to me what exactly Mars will export and import?

The closest in Earth’s history is the trade between China and Europe in the 17th through 19th century. In this case Earth is China, and Mars is Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, China was largely self-sufficient and Europe had nothing to trade for Chinese goods that Europeans wanted. That was, until the discovery of silver in the Americas. Luckily for Europe, silver was used by the Chinese for their taxes, which made it highly desirable it was the only good that China would actually trade for (like porcelain). This dynamic continued for a couple decades until the British discovered that they really liked tea and bought it by the millions of chests. While most of their trade was contained within their colonies, they couldn’t get tea anywhere else but China, which caused them to hemorrhage money to a country outside their colonial system. China was still self-sufficient though, so Britain needed to find something to trade. That thing ended up being opium grown in India, which was then sold in China, and eventually caused the opium wars and so on.

The point of all that is that Earth is largely self-sufficient and if we’re going to colonize Mars and the moon, they need to export something to make it worthwhile from an investment standpoint. What is that you may ask? My money’s on rhodium and other platinum-type elements from asteroids. Why? Because rhodium coordinated to certain ligands is able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas photochemically. In fact, this was discovered back in the 80’s, but due to rhodium being relatively rare on Earth, the technology was never put into wide scale use. It is abundant on asteroids though, and it would be very easy to mine and refine it on Mars, allowing people on Earth to scale that technology and bring about a new age of hydrogen power. I may be entirely wrong with this however, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m confident Martian colonists will find something to export though. If not, I don’t think space colonization will extend far beyond Mars and the Moon, since there’s no economic incentive.