The New Gold Rush – Deep Sea Mining
Closer than the moon, yet less well-mapped than Mars, the Earth’s seafloor remote habitat has caught the attention of humans, who are lining up to begin mining the bottom of the deep blue sea.
As technology and infrastructure drive the demand for minerals, and terrestrial resources grow harder to mine, the materials in the deep ocean are starting to look increasingly attractive to countries and companies.
“Deep-sea mining could end up having the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet in terms of area of impact,” says University of Hawaii oceanographer Craig Smith.
It’s already underway: pioneer excavations in Papua New Guinea and Japan have taken advantage of advances in remotely operated vehicles, robotics, and communications technology to pioneer excavations. And companies like Lockheed Martin subsidiary UK Seabed Resources are eager to embark on a new deep-sea bonanza.
Over one million square miles of abyssal plain 12,000 to 18,000 feet deep is peppered with polymetallic nodules—vast fields of lumpy, black, potato-shaped mineral deposits.
Nodules range in size from a pea to a soccer ball and are rich in manganese, iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare-earth elements, though they can take millions of years to grow a few millimetres.
The idea of mining these nodules, in part, led to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. It also resulted in the establishment of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which oversees exploration claims in international waters.
Over half of those claims, some nearly 29,000 square miles in size, are in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a region 75 percent as large as the continental United States that stretches some 3,000 miles across the equatorial eastern Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. In total, the ISA recognizes 29 claims, although mining has yet to begin. Currently all activity in the CCZ is in the experimental or exploratory phase.
“The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths.”
Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after the death of Mao, said in 1992 “The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths.”
This was not always so. For 50 years starting in 1940 the United States produced its own rare metals primarily from the Mountain Pass mine in southern California.
In the 1960’s when color was brought to television, a rare metal called europium was needed to produce TV’s red. Demand for rare metals exploded and the Mountain Pass mine became the world’s largest. (photo – Alicia Wallace, Denver Post)
The bonanza didn’t last. By 2002 the mine was shuttered for serious environmental violations. Then starting in 2008 a new owner Molycorp invested $1.25 billion and reopened the mine. With rising rare metal prices Molycorp was by 2012 on track to produce +20,000 metric tons.
Apparently, that was too much competition for the Chinese, they flooded the world market and forced prices for rare metals down. By 2015 Molycorp went bankrupt and in June of 2017 the mine was auctioned. Not surprisingly the new owner was a Chinese owned consortium.
China Controls 97% of the World’s Supply
That means that China now controls 97% of the world’s rare metals mined on land and they are now looking to deep sea mining to find more. (photo – The Telegraph UK)
All known potential sources of rare metals on land total about 76 million tons. That’s enough predictable supply to meet demand for only 40 more years. Plus, the demand for more common metals like nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper is rapidly surpassing new production sources.
All of these metals, rare and common are found on the sea floor and have been in the sights of mining companies for years. Until recently technical limitations have made mining these minerals impossible.
Now, 27 exploration licenses have been granted by the International Seabed Authority and China has three. A vessel especially built for trawling deep waters for minerals is under construction in China’s state-owned shipyard.
Solwara 1 Begins Within Months
The project closest to actual execution is scheduled to begin in early 2019 in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea. Known as Solwara 1. The prospect will be carried out by the Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals. They will be targeting copper and gold deposits surrounding hydrothermal vents..
A specialized support ship is in final construction. It will lower the mining equipment to the sea floor and also pump the ore to the surface for processing. Nautilus says everything has been carefully thought out, but at a mile deep, under enormous pressures, a lot can go wrong.
It now seems clear that the technical barriers to searching for and harvesting deep sea minerals have now mostly been overcome, what remains are the ethical and environmental concerns.