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Will we soon be mining the seabed?

 

Answer

Deep-sea mining is not yet a reality, but deep-sea exploration for marine mineral resources has been going on for over a decade. Until 2011, it was the preserve of public or semi-public institutions, but now private investors are also getting involved. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Kingston, Jamaica, has concluded 13 contracts on the study of polymetallic nodules in the zone between Hawaii, Mexico and the Equator, and one contract for exploration in the central Indian Ocean. The ISA will review four new contract applications (one for sulphide deposits, one for polymetallic nodules, and two for cobalt-rich crusts) at its annual session in July 2013.

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Photo: BGR, Hannover

Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources says that it will be at least another ten years before nodule mining begins on an industrial scale. This period of time will be needed to develop the technology to the point that it is ready for marine use. The biggest challenges facing designers are the enormous pressure (400-500 bar) and the chilly temperatures (1-2 °C) that prevail in the pitch darkness at up to 5,000 metres below the surface. Many of the components that make up the collectors are brand new. Because mining technology used at these depths has to offer outstanding reliability and a long service life, the new parts will have to undergo rigorous testing before they can be deployed.

Progress depends heavily on the price of metals. A company seeking to mine and smelt metal ore from marine deposits will have to invest around €1.2 billion to get up and running – so it only makes financial sense to develop systems for deep-sea mining if metal prices remain high. But in the long term, those prices will depend on the state of the global economy, which is notoriously difficult to predict. That means no one knows when the first commercial deep-sea mining project will get underway.

This response was provided by experts from the Marine Resource Exploration division at Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources.