The concept behind Sci-Fi Miners

Text. João Martinho Moura. June 2019.

In the following text, we present the concept behind Sci-fi Miners.

João Martinho Moura. June 2019.
Full publication available soon.

More information about the ‘Sci-fi Miners’ work here.


The reason we are naming this work ‘Sci-fi Miners’ is purely conceptual, imaginative, reminding brave explorers discovering and facing unknown worlds, looking for new spheres of research, and trying to solve human problems, as the alchemists of medieval Europe that employed water and fire to change the optical, chemical, and physical properties of materials [1]. Natural resources, like critical metals, especially rare platinum group metals (PMGs), are essential and used for heterogeneous and electrochemical catalysis. As 90% of things (goods) we use in our societies is produced by catalysis, humans depend strongly on these natural resources. Currently, many countries are profoundly dependent on the mining industry to obtain these materials, relevant for fuel cells, storage of renewable energy, and for pollutant emissions control. There are indeed studies and plans to extract those resources in outer space, in the moon and asteroids, to fulfill the need of current consumer and economic trends on Earth.

Humans depend strongly on catalysis. And catalysis is dependent on Platinum Group Metals. PGM belongs to the so-called Critical Raw Materials – becoming rare on earth [1]. PMGs provides clean and sustainable energy technologies, an important value for us and future generations. Earth is immensely large, but as these materials are only found underground, hard to obtain, we will soon enter the risk of supply in the next decades. We should worry about natural resources running out, and these rare materials should be replaced by something abundant on the Earth. This is the aim of CritCat project. Nowadays we can extract a few grams of platinum per ton of rock. Latest EU reports say that in 15 years, platinum group metals will not be sufficient to fulfill current society consumer trends [2]. Urgency is the word we find for this research. That is why this work’s name is Sci-fi Miners (referring to the researchers), once the extraction of those rare materials is currently made by the mining industry, large economic groups, in deep caves located in a small number of regions in the world, in very low concentrations. Also, resource extraction is responsible for half the world’s carbon emissions [3].

Catalysis is the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction by adding a substance known as a catalyst, which is not consumed in the reaction and can act continually and repeatedly. 18th-century chemistry scientists that worked in catalysis were Eilhard Mitscherlich, whose contributions to classical chemistry were indispensable, and referred to it as ‘contact processes’ [4], and Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner, who spoke of ‘contact action’ [5][6]. In fact, this is the literal definition of Interface, a wide term used in the media arts for different proposes. Interface (in the physical sciences) is a boundary between two spatial regions occupied by different matter, or by matter in different physical states.

Imagine one millimeter … now, divide it by one million. That is one nanometer. This is an incredibly small scale. The conceptual underpinnings of nanotechnologies were first laid out in 1959 by the physicist Richard Feynman, in his lecture ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ [7]. Feynman explored the possibility of manipulating material at the scale of individual atoms and molecules, imagining the whole of the Encyclopaedia Britannica written on the head of a pin and foreseeing the increasing ability to examine and control matter at the nanoscale [8].

Nano-clusters have been shown to exhibit “magic numbers”, corresponding to closed shells of atoms or of electrons with particular stability. Clusters also exhibit physical and chemical properties which differ drastically from the corresponding individual atoms or bulk solids and depend acutely on cluster nuclearity – especially in the “non-scalable” regime [9].

 ‘Sci-Fi Miners’ is an artistic residency happening at CritCat partners a) the Nanochemistry Research Group [10] at INL (International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory, located in Braga, Portugal, led by Doctor Yury Kolen’Ko and b) the Surfaces and Interfaces at the Nanoscale (SIN) group [11], located in Aalto University, in Helsinki, led by Doctor Adam Foster. The artist visited both labs in the course of the residency.

The nanotechnology term was coined by Tokyo University of Science  Professor Norio Taniguchi describing semiconductor processes [12]. Implications of using nanotechnology are present in everyday life, and it plays a significant role in our life and society. Robert Fludd, 17th-century alchemist Robert, imagined the Sun as gold, and printed it by using gold nanoparticles [13]. In 81 came a great breakthrough: the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, the inventors of the STM, wrote that when they first captured images of a surface of silicon atoms [14].

As in the proposed concept, Sci-fi Miners are the brave researchers finding alternative methodologies to substitute PMGs, using earth-abundant resources. Moreover, this is not done with large construction infrastructural digging machines in the deepest caves, but in the cleanroom labs, at the nano and atomic scale. Researchers are exploring Nanotechnology and Artificial Intelligence to do it. In the past months, the artist in residence has been interacting with researchers from CritCat project partners, talking with them, observing their current research, making questions, looking at images at the nanoscale, materials, data, and publications, to develop visual interactive simulations and interfaces. Sci-Fi Miners is an artistic exploration of how, with the help of scientific advances in nanotechnology and AI, we will substitute critical rare raw materials on Earth, intending to let the public know how significant this research is for humankind and the sustainability of our planet.

Faced with CritCat technology and after long conversations with scientists, the process of developing an artistic idea and its materialization took some time: 6 months. Initially, the artist verified several images previously obtained by microscopy (scanning and transmission and electron microscopy) at the CritCat project partner Forschungszentrum Julich Gmbh, Germany. Then, he began by developing computer codes in order to extract visual information about microscopy observations (Fig 1), like color and shape morphology or concentration, observing its complexity. He also developed a series of data visualizations, after some interactions with the team, who had the desire of representing, in a single interface, several chemical formulas reactions with the option of changing parameters in real-time, for example, the temperature in the catalytic process, a relevant parameter in the characterization of results [15]. The artist developed a visual scenario with several interactive sliders, in order to achieve those visualizations (Fig. 2), demonstrating how the catalytic process is a dynamic and complex phenomenon, depending on many variables and circumstances. This process was interactive, and the first developments happened in order to the artist appropriate the research in course. It was also an important step in establishing confidence with the scientific team. Interdisciplinarity doesn’t start with people asking what’s their part of the cake but people bringing the cake to the table. It seems banal but in reality, it is quite difficult [16].

A midpoint compromise between accuracy and narrative, between the real and the imaginary, between facts and storytelling, was established. The goal of this artistic residency was to tell a story, spread awareness, to teleport participants to imagined unknown worlds. Artist’s motivations and creations are new and different compared with the ones in the scientific visualization community, and neutral analysis is not the only important task in life [17]. Moreover, having an artist in the team is was a bonus, approaching a possible solution to one of the major problems in the area of scientific visualization: the representation of error or uncertainty [18].

The artist had the unique opportunity to observe materials using one of the most advanced microscopy instruments in the world, the TITAN microscope, located at INL facilities, in Braga, so powerful it can probe the spaces between atoms. That is an incredible asset to any media artist working in the field of art and sciences. At that moment, and after observing atomic-scale images, a point of no return was established in the course of the residency. The artist wanted to teleport people to that space, so small, so inaccessible, unleashing imaginaries that only the arts could empower.

A journey distance range for the nano-space scale travel defined, which began in the millimeter scale (1mm) and would end up on the scale of one nanometer (1nm), using virtual reality technologies. Artists working in any given medium seek to exploit the specific qualities of that medium in their work. Virtual reality has many features that combine to make it a truly unique medium, as the ability to manipulate the sense of time and space [19]. It would be an interesting step in the project, and could also be representative for the general public, also to gain awareness to the goals of this research, as an important value for us and future generations.

In this sense, it was a pioneering nano-scale live performance, at stage, in virtual reality, and the sensation of immersion was achieved by the audience, which was composed of senior researchers accustomed to high-performance scientific visualizations. The performance had the duration of 20 minutes, between audiovisual work (presented in the first 10 minutes), corresponding to first observations at the 1mm scale, and also audiovisual algorithms related to the first visualizations in the residency. In the middle of the performance, a moment in total immersion happened: the artist entered in an imagined energetic field, through an imagined capsule being sent to the nano-space. He then loaded two types of nanoclusters generated by the SIN group in Aalto.

Full publication available soon.

More information about the ‘Sci-fi Miners’ work here.


[1].            Rare metals – CritCat. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jun-2019].

[2]             Deloitte Sustainability, Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, and N. O. for A. S. Research, 2017. Study on the review of the list of critical raw materials – Publications Office of the EU. 2017 ISBN: 978-92-79-47937-3.

[3]             J. Watts, . Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions | Environment | The Guardian. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jun-2019].

[4]             H.-W. Schutt, 1992. Eilhard Mitscherlich: Prince of Prussian Chemistry. Deutshes Museum, Merk & Co., Inc, 1992 ISBN: 0-8412-3345-4.

[5]             Wikipedia, . Catalysis. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 12-May-2019].

[6]             J. Wisniak, Jan. 2010. The History of Catalysis. From the Beginning to Nobel Prizes, Educación Química, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 60–69. DOI: 10.1016/S0187-893X(18)30074-0 ISSN: 0187-893X.

[7]             R. P. Feynman, 1960. There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Engineering and Science, vol. 23, no. 5, pp. 22–36. DOI: 10.1201/9780429500459-7.

[8]             The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004. Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, London, 2004. DOI: 10.1007/s00234-004-1255-6 ISBN: 0023400412556 ISSN: 0028-3940.

[9].            Catalyst nanoparticles – CritCat. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 03-Jun-2019].

[10].          Nanochemistry – Micro and Nanofabrication. INL. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 04-Jun-2019].

[11].          Surfaces and Interfaces at the Nanoscale (SIN) | Aalto University. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 02-Jun-2019].

[12]           N. Taniguchi, 1974. On the Basic Concept of Nanotechnology, in Proceedings of the International Conference on Production Engineering, 1974, pp. 18–23.

[13]           A. K. Yetisen et al., Mar-2016. Art on the Nanoscale and beyond, Advanced Materials, vol. 28, no. 9. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 1724–1742, Mar-2016. DOI: 10.1002/adma.201502382 ISBN: 1521-4095 ISSN: 15214095.

[14]           C. Toumey, Apr. 2009. Truth and Beauty at the Nanoscale, Leonardo, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 151–155. DOI: 10.1162/leon.2009.42.2.151 ISSN: 0024-094X.

[15]           D. M. Foster, T. Pavloudis, J. Kioseoglou, and R. E. Palmer, Dec. 2019. Atomic-resolution imaging of surface and core melting in individual size-selected Au nanoclusters on carbon, Nature Communications, vol. 10, no. 1, p. 2583. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-10713-z ISSN: 2041-1723.

[16].          Gerfried Stocker: Creativity requires nurture | Aalto University. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Jun-2019].

[17]           F. B. Viégas and M. Wattenberg, 2007. Artistic Data Visualization: Beyond Visual Analytics, Online Communities and Social Computing, vol. 4564, no. HCII 2007, LNCS 4564, pp. 182–191. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-73257-0_21 ISBN: 9783540732563 ISSN: 0302-9743.

[18]           C. Johnson, Jul. 2004. Top scientific visualization research problems, IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 13–17. DOI: 10.1109/MCG.2004.20 ISBN: 0272-1716 VO – 24 ISSN: 02721716.

[19]           W. R. Sherman and A. B. Craig, 2003. Understanding Virtual Reality—Interface, Application, and Design, Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 441–442. DOI: 10.1162/105474603322391668 ISBN: 1558603530 ISSN: 1054-7460.

Image: ‘You’re now at the nano space’, Sci-fi Miners (João Martinho Moura, 2019), virtual reality experience.
Dots represent real observed nanoparticle foam to produce clean hydrogen fuel (approximate scale: 5µm).
The participant is teleported to the nanoscale, in virtual reality, a journey to the 1nm nanocluster atomic dimension.

Full publication available soon.

More information about the ‘Sci-fi Miners’ work here.