Exploring the ocean's reserves

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2017

Natalie Daniels reports from this year’s Deep Sea Mining Summit.

Rare minerals that lie within the sea floor are driving deep-sea mining exploration. But environmental concerns, the need for new robotic technology and lack of mining business investment has meant that progress to begin operations has been slow. 

On the 22 May, the 6th Annual Deep Sea Mining Summit 2017 was held at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall, London, UK, with talks on technological advancements, new opportunities, regulatory developments and financing deep-sea mining projects. In an opening statement, Simon Wenkel, a PhD student at Clausthal University of Technology’s Institute of Mining, Germany, said ‘Oceans contribute so little to mineral resources. Complex regulations and optimisation are a major problem in the industry.’

Throughout the day’s events, there was an emphasis on regulatory framework and new mining systems that will enable scientists to uncover rare earths such as tellurium and cobalt that lie within the deep ocean. ‘A clear legal framework is needed. This will increase acceptance of deep-sea mining with increased environmental credentials,’ said Wenkel.

In April 2017, scientists working for the UK's National Oceanography Centre, UK, for a project called MarineE-tech made a significant discovery of mineral deposits, the team exploring a seamount 500km off the Canary Islands found a crust of tellurium stretching over 4cm of the mountain’s surface but in concentrations 50,000 times higher than in deposits on land. These scientists are not alone in seeing the potential for seabed mining as marine biologists and mining experts are trying to determine the benefits and risks of mining on the seabed.

Drilling in deep water 

Technology advancement was a particular focus point at the event, with advances in robotic drilling and autonomous machines needed to explore the high-value metals in these deposits if the industry is to take off. Filipa Marques, Centre for Deep Sea Research, Norway, explained, ‘We still don’t know that much about the ocean floor. It is extremely difficult to find these deposits. We need more technology, time and money.’

To assess the deposits, extraction technology, sea monitoring, vessels and drilling technologies will need continued R&D to help the industry to grow. Autonomous vehicles are used to map the sea floor, identify the deposits and then extract samples to be analysed. The National Subsea Research Initiative (NSRI), UK, has been looking at the UK’s capabilities in the subsea mining industry. ‘The UK's strong supply chain can, and should be, utilised for sub-sea mining. Much of the technology used in other industries such as offshore wind is transferable to deep-sea mining,’ said Christopher Fjellorth, NSRI. 

New technologies could help monitor the environmental impact of deep-sea mining, as Fjellorth explains, 'Several technologies such as recreational utility vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles have been used – these vehicles have sensors in them to perform tasks such as multi spectral imaging, light and noise monitoring and visual senses. In terms of vessels, they are also required for all stages of subsea mining from the exploration and research vessels to production support vessels.' 

Although the drive for technology has been slow, the world’s first deep-sea mining project will begin operations in 2018, following an announcement in April 2016 by Nautilus Minerals, Canada. The Solwara 1, in Papua New Guinea sits on the seafloor at a water depth of 1,600 metres, located near New Ireland and East New Britain. The company plans to explore copper (7.8g/t), gold (6g/t) and silver (25g/t) deposits using automated robots that cause no blasting noise, ground vibration, dust or fume nuisance to mine seafloor massive sulphides. The project will deploy three systems – the seafloor production tools, the riser and lifting system and the production support vessel. The Department of Environment and Conservation of Papua New Guinea granted an environmental permit to the Solwara 1 project in December 2009 for a term of 25 years.

With the international regulations still being drafted, ‘the mining industry will still not invest in this industry as the risk is too high. A public-private partnership funded by the EU is needed, whereby everyone can work together. At this stage everyone is waiting anxiously for the results from Nautilus,’ said Henk van Muijen, Managing Director at IHC MTI, the Netherlands. A lot rides on the results of the Nautilus Minerals project as it could hold the key to future investment and regulations, and address environmental concerns in mining the world’s oceans.