A short note to call your attention to a posting on the site The Oil Drum on the mining of oil sands and Avatar. The posting includes a well-illustrated summary of the processes of oil sands mining and a brief note that the movie gets the mining process wrong: they use a bucket wheel excavator. As the posting notes:
Bucket wheel excavators were, at one time, used for mining up at Fort McMurray where the large oil sand deposits are found in Northern Alberta. However the reason that they were discontinued (and which formed part of the plot of the book “Athabasca” by Alistair MacLean) is that they are the single machine whose health totally controls production. When they are working the mine is producing, and when they aren’t it isn’t. (The plot of the movie was to disable the machine and thus stop oil production – possible where there was only one machine.) The problem that really developed was that maintenance and repair of such a behemoth is such that it is more reliable and productive to rely on a multitude of smaller machines, with truck haulage, rather than the single large machine with conveyors. As the mines have learned these lessons they have pensioned off or sold most of those they had. Now, if some of the shovels have maintenance problems, with some dozen or more working at one time, then the drop in production is not nearly that significant. You can see one of the problems in this picture of the teeth on the buckets. (Since this is the one on display, I suspect that towards the end replacements weren’t as frequent, but you can see how many teeth were missing, and these take significant time (and money) to replace).
This is almost a lesson for life: use many small units rather than rely on one big one, for when it breaks everything comes to a standstill.
On the topic of the economics of mining as portrayed in Avatar, see this link which points out that the cost of transporting unobtanium exceeds its value by about 2,500. The article notes this point about going to distant planets to mine:
This question was addressed two centuries ago, when England began to send people (mostly low-grade criminals) to Australia. This population needed something to export to London to earn foreign currency, and they settled on wool. This was not because the Aussies are particularly fond of sheep (although New Zealanders have plenty of jokes about that), but only because wool is very expensive per pound. Sending it back to Europe was expensive, and Australian wool would only be competitive in the London markets if the shipping costs were a small fraction of the product value. Even in the day of wooden ships, this criterion was met.
Not that it matters that the movie gets mining wrong. As James Cameron said in accepting a Golden Globe award: it’s only science fiction. He also said:
“Critics should not look at the nemesis but the hero if they want to see the values of the filmmaker. Everything about (Jake) celebrates the American Marine Corps and its value system. He evinces the qualities the American Marine Corps teaches its men and women, to adapt to the local culture. I believe in a strong military, but we have to open our eyes. We have to look when political leaders put in these men and women on the ground for wrong reasons. And I’m not talking about recent history, I’m talking about human history.”
Which leave me with a final thought about Haiti: I was in San Francisco when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit and I was in Pasadena whent the Northridge earthquake hit, and both were bigger than the one that hit Haiti. The difference is the cities were built to withstand the shaking. The tragedy of Haiti is a tragedy of the absence of technology and engineering, not a tragedy of nature. This tragedy is a result of human inadequacy, societal failure, not of what geologists and engineers can do in a decent society. Any body who hereafter triumphs the “natural” and simple way of life, has to explain to me, how you achieve being one with nature and avoid tragedies like Haiti.