The world’s first deep sea mining robot sits idle on a British factory floor, waiting to claw up high-grade copper and gold from the seabed off Papua New Guinea once a wrangle over terms is solved.
Beyond Papua New Guinea, in international waters, regulation and royalty terms for mining the planet’s subsea wealth have also yet to be finalized. The world waits for the judgement of a UN agency based in Jamaica.
“If we can take care of the environment we have a brand new day ahead of us. The marine area beyond national jurisdiction is 50 percent of the Ocean,” UN International Seabed Authority Secretary-General Nii Odunton said.
“I believe the grades look good, the abundance looks good, I believe that money will be made,” Odunton said from the agency’s offices in Kingston, Jamaica.
High-tech advances, depleted easy-to-reach minerals onshore and historically high prices have boosted the idea of mining offshore, where metals can be 15 times the quality of land deposits.
In Newcastle, England, the “beasty” — as engineer Keith Franklin calls his machine — lies in wait, resembling a submersible tank with 4m-wide cutting blades.
Built by Soil Machine Dynamics, it will put Canadian-listed Nautilus Minerals on course to become the first company to mine commercially in deep water.
Nautilus’ primary resource, Solwara 1, is a Seafloor Massive Sulphide deposit about 1,500m underwater which forms along hydrothermal vents where mineral-rich fluids spurt from cracks in the Earth’s crust.
Equipped with cameras and 3D sonar sensors, the robot is driven by two pilots from a control room on the vessel above that it is attached to via a giant power cable.
“The cameras aren’t enough by themselves because the machine will be working by vents where black soot spurts from the ocean crust and it will sometimes be near impossible to see anything,” said Stef Kapusniak, business development manager for mining at Soil Machine Dynamics. “The 3D sonar will allow it to make images and send it back to the control room.”
The machine then cuts up the sea floor and sucks the rocks through a pipe to deposit it in mounds behind “like icing a cake,” Kapusniak said.
Another machine that is yet to be built will then help suck the ore to the surface.
Nautilus aims to produce between 80,000 and 100,000 tonnes of copper, as well as between 100,000 and 200,000 ounces of gold — equivalent to a modest onshore mine. It was supposed to be producing by now, but disagreements with the Papuan government over financial terms have set it back.
Nautilus chief executive Mike Johnston said he was confident a resolution would be sorted out and the company would be mining within two to three years.
Most of the world’s best deposits lie even deeper than Nautilus’ Solwara 1, at a depth of about 6,000m in an area known as the Clarion Clipperton Zone.
Large numbers of manganese nodules — potato sized rocks rich in copper, cobalt and nickel — lie across this 4.5 million square kilometer abyssal plain between Hawaii and Mexico.
The UN International Seabed Authority is drawing up a code to deal with some environmental concerns and the commercial terms for deep-sea mining. It predicts it will be finished in about two or three years, with mining to commence in about five to 10 years.
“It’s only after the code is in place and people are happy with it that the huge investments needed to start deep-sea mining will occur,” Odunton said.