Hidden treasures in the deep sea

70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, and still little is known about the treasures hidden in the deep sea. One of the first known deep sea minerals, polymetallic nodules, were first discovered in 1868 in the arctic ocean off Siberia. During the scientific expedition of the H.M.S. Challenger (1872 – 1876), they were found to occur in most oceans of the world. This would lay the foundation for deep sea mining, which was investigated only a century later. However, by exploring the possibilities of deep sea mining a lot of political, ecological and technical challenges lie ahead.

During the last decades the use and consumption of minerals has increased significantly and so have their prices. And naturally, when prices go up, and accessible sites are limited, research is carried out in order to explore new sources. In the case of minerals, retrieving them from the ocean bed has become a serious option because of the technology development that has taken place in the oil and gas, and marine industries. And so, Namibia has developed a large offshore diamond industry while Indonesia mines tin from the sea.

Rodney Norman, director deep sea mining at Royal IHC, compares the developments in deep sea mining industry with the developments in other industries: “Some day we will run out of minerals on land, and then we will have to obtain them from other sources. These days you can choose to explore either outer space or the deep sea if you are interested in finding a new source for materials, Royal IHC has chosen to focus on the deep sea. The extraction of oil and gas started on land as well, now offshore and deep sea are significant areas of the industry. However, at the moment we know more about the moon than about the deep sea.” Henk van Muijen, managing director mining at Royal IHC, adds: “As on the moon, the pressure in the deep sea is totally different to that on earth. However, you can do moon walking, walking on the seabed at 3,000 metres water depth is impossible due to the extreme pressure.”

Gold, silver and zinc

The mining of minerals from the seabed is currently being carried out in shallow waters, whereas deep sea mining is targeting depths of about 1,500 metres and deeper. Van Muijen: “If the waters are shallow enough, then standard dredging equipment will do, it is also referred to as dredge mining. For deep sea mining, you need specialised remotely operated equipment because the deep sea pressure and distance makes it impossible for standard equipment to operate. In deep sea mining you can distinguish three kinds of known deposits: polymetallic nodules which contains metals like manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and some rare earth elements; extinct seafloor massive sulphides and extinct black smokers, where metals like gold, silver, zinc and copper can be found; and manganese crusts. There are different techniques available for extracting these deposits.”

Van Muijen: “IHC is an integrator; we combine various equipment and technologies to make our mining technology work as a whole, in this case to make it work at kilometres depth. Unlike other parties we are specialised to look at the bigger picture to create new opportunities for our customers. Since we operate in different fields of expertise like dredging, offshore and maritime technology and mining we bring together all this knowledge available within IHC to create a total solution.”

Norman adds: “IHC manufactures a lot of equipment and we have a vast range of remote subsea equipment. We have taken all this in-house knowledge and translate it into technology for the mining of polymetallic nodules, by developing a subsea vehicle that can drive on the seabed and collect the nodules. Then, we focussed on bringing the material up. After all, IHC is a dredge manufacturing specialist so we know all about pumps. We are developing a vertical pipe of four kilometres length that transports the nodules up to the support vessel. Once at the support vessel the nodules are dewatered, so they can be stored on board for later transfer to a bulk carrier. The equipment is being developed with technical institutes like NIOZ and TNO, and various industrial partners.”

Strategic involvement

Gert-Jan Reichart, head of the marine geology department at Royal NIOZ, the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, explains the strategic importance: “To mine these deep sea treasures is a big challenge, ecologically as well as technically. NIOZ is involved in various studies to gain more insight into the ecological impact and the equipment needed to successfully mine at great depths, as we are specialised in working in extreme environments. For Europe it is of strategic importance to have mining sites at its disposal, as well as for the Netherlands, so we no longer have to rely on other countries. However, the Dutch government has not yet taken action in this area.”

Legislation

The legislation regarding deep sea mining is complicated. Deep sea mining is country-driven, not company-driven, because of the difficulties with legislation, since the deep ocean does not belong to anybody. The UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the ISA, the International Seabed Authority, is part of the United Nations and holds all rights and obligations with regard to the sea, and are together with the ISA, responsible for organising the overall legislation, exportation and rights.

Van Muijen“Although the Netherlands tries to play a role in the UNCLOS and the ISA we lack national legislation so we cannot be a sponsor state and therefore the marine industry cannot gain concessions for deep sea mining possibilities or play a major role in developing this industry. As a sponsor state you become a member of the community and gain more rights to participate. The Dutch offshore industry is very well developed, in every way, and we can use this respected position to help develop the deep sea mining industry in a sustainable way and to assist a number of developing countries which have interesting deposits, but lack this knowledge. We are trying to discuss this with different levels of the Dutch government and help organise activities to show why involvement is of importance.”

Concessions

The authorities have arranged the exploration concessions in an interesting way. “As a sponsor state you can receive an exploration concession, but this concession needs to be split in two equal halves. The ISA has the right to one of the halves, the other half you may keep. Then either the ISA will explore this half, or it is granted to a UN third-world country. This is ISA’s way of keeping richer countries from dominating developing countries with large sites, and giving them a chance to profit from the riches of the seabed and the knowledge of other countries. For example, Belgium has a concession and shares this with the Cook Islands”, explains Norman.

Deep sea fauna

Since deep sea mining is still an industry to be explored, no actual deep sea mining has taken place yet, the ecological impact is unknown. Reichart explains: “The deep sea fauna seems very fragile, but for example on the mid-ocean ridges it is also very dynamic. It is possible that deep sea mining will disturb the ecosystem on the seabed, for example by causing dust-clouds, but it is also possible that because it is so dynamic it is able to rapidly recover.”

According to Norman the environment is an important factor for IHC as well: “It is important that this industry will be developed in a sustainable way. Therefore research is of importance. What we already know is that we do not have to make big holes in the seabed, like we did on land, because the polymetallic nodules we are targeting lie scattered and exposed on the seabed. To gain more insight into the effects we are, amongst others, involved in MIDAS, an EU research consortium that studies how to manage the impact of deep sea exploitation. IHC’s participation in MIDAS is focused on understanding the environmental affects of mining the seabed and ways to mitigate these affects.”

Future mining

Since no actual deep sea mining has taken place yet, what can we expect from the future? According to Van Muijen the first steps will be taken in mining in shallow waters, for example tin mining and diamond mining, and go deeper from there. Developments in deep sea mining will still take another five to ten years according to him: “As said, it is important to make sure what the environmental effects are negated, so pilot testing and pilot mining are therefore of utmost importance.” “It is not a negative thing that the development still needs some time. You don’t want to flood the market with too many metals, because prices will decrease. The Netherlands can play a key role, since our maritime and offshore industry is so well developed and operating worldwide”, Norman comments. Reichart agrees: “Companies in the Netherlands are state of the art when talking about technical developments. However it is important that the Dutch government sees the importance of a policy in the area of deep sea mining, so we can join research.”

Opportunities

It seems a lot of challenges, but also major opportunities lie ahead in this interesting, developing industry. “For Europe an opportunity lies ahead in gaining mining sites, which it is lacking now. The aim should be to decrease our reliance for minerals on other countries, who may not be able to meet our demands”, says Norman. Van Muijen concludes: “The Dutch government should step up and facilitate our involvement in the development of this industry. The Netherlands is large and rich enough to play an important role, while being small enough to not be considered a political threat.”



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