Certainly Not a Bed: the seabed

Walking across the seabed (US Navy). image wikipedia

Patania One became in May 217the first robot in 40 years to be lowered to the sea floor in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ), about 5,000 metres beneath the Pacific ocean…There it gathered data about the seabed and how larger robots might move carefully across it, sucking up valuable minerals en route.

The CCZ is a 6m square-kilometre (2.3m square-mile) tract between two of the long, straight “fracture zones” which the stresses of plate tectonics have created in the crust beneath the Pacific. Scattered across it are trillions of fist-sized mineral nodules, each the result of tens of millions of years of slow agglomeration around a core of bone, shell or rock. Such nodules are quite common in the Pacific, but the CCZ is the only part of the basin where the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates such matters beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of individual countries, currently permits exploration. Companies from Japan, Russia, China and a couple of dozen other countries have been granted concessions to explore for minerals in the CCZ. The ISA is expected to approve the first actual mining in 2019 or 2020.

This could be big business. James Hein of the United States Geological Survey and colleagues estimated in a paper in 2012 that the CCZ holds more nickel, cobalt and manganese than all known terrestrial deposits of those metals put together. The World Bank expects the battery industry’s demand for these, and other, minerals to increase if the transition to clean energy speeds up enough to keep global temperatures below the limits set in the Paris agreement on climate.

One of the firms attracted by this vast potential market is DEME, a Belgian dredging company ….Korea, Japan and China all have state-run research projects looking to dredge nodules from the deep sea with robots: “It really is a race,” says Kris Van Nijen, who runs DEME’s deep-sea mining efforts…

[It was expected]that deep-sea mining would develop rapidly by the 1980s. A lack of demand (and thus investment), technological capacity and appropriate regulation kept that from happening. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which set up the ISA, was not signed until 1982. (America has still not ratified it, and thus cannot apply to the ISA for sea-floor-mining permits.)

Mr Van Nijen and his competitors think that now, at last, the time is right. DEME is currently building Patania Two, or P2… In order to satisfy the ISA, this new machine does not just have to show it can harvest nodules; it also has to show that it can do so in an environmentally sensitive way. Its harvesting will throw up plumes of silt which, in settling, could swamp the sea floor’s delicate ecosystem. A survey of CCZ life in 2016 found a surprising diversity of life. Of the 12 animal species collected, seven were new to science…

The CCZ is not the only sea floor that has found itself in miners’ sights. Nautilus, a Canadian firm, says it will soon start mining the seabed in Papua New Guinea’s EEZ for gold and copper, though at the time of writing the ship it had commissioned for the purpose sits unfinished in a Chinese yard. A Saudi Arabian firm called Manafai wants to mine the bed of the Red Sea, which is rich in metals from zinc to gold. There are projects to mine iron sands off the coast of New Zealand and manganese crusts off the coast of Japan. De Beers already mines a significant proportion of its diamonds from the sea floor off the coast of Namibia, although in just 150 metres of water this is far less of a technical challenge.

If the various precautions work out, the benefits of deep-sea mining might be felt above the water as well. Mining minerals on land can require clearing away forests and other ecosystems in order to gain access, and moving hundreds of millions of tonnes of rock to get down to the ores. Local and indigenous people have often come out poorly from the deals made between miners and governments. Deep-sea mining will probably produce lower grade ores, but it will do so without affecting human populations.

Undersea Mining: Race to the Bottom, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018

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