Treasures beneath the sea

By Chu Daye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/26 18:13:40

China set to make breakthrough in deep-ocean mining of rare, hotly-demanded metals

China's Xiang Yang Hong 06 survey vessel at the port of Rizhao, East China's Shandong Province Photo: IC

Before mankind's first commercial deep-sea mining endeavor begins in 2019, China's Xiang Yang Hong 06 survey vessel is currently examining the seabed of the East Pacific for precious metals in a three-month-long voyage. A leading expert in China's seabed mining quest says of the voyage that the country is sailing toward a program that will see the extraction of 30 tons of minerals per hour from 1,700 meters beneath the sea by 2020, minerals that are much-needed in the country.

In August, the Xiang Yang Hong 06 vessel left Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the East Pacific, south of the Hawaiian Islands, to search for polymetallic nodules.

Aboard the survey vessel are experts from China Minmetals Corp (CMC), in the company's first voyage to search for mining opportunities for deep-sea rare metals.

CMC is one of the only 27 contractors for deep-sea mining within the Pacific Ocean under the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body, headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, that governs all mineral-related activities on international seabed areas that are beyond the limits of national jurisdictions.

Calling from the sea

"It is not a matter of whether China needs to conduct voyages in deep-sea mining, it is a matter of should we begin such voyages now, or five years later, or 10 years later," Li Maolin, deputy general manager at the Changsha Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Co in Central China's Hunan Province, told the Global Times on Friday.

Li's company, a subsidiary of CMC, oversees the survey activity aboard Xiang Yang Hong 06

Seabed mineral resources mainly refer to three types of deposits - polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich crusts and polymetallic sulfide deposit. Some of these metals are vital ingredients for emerging industries such as new-energy vehicles.

The deep seabed minerals are huge in quantity and boast excessive concentration compared with their land equivalents, Li said.

In the Clarion-Clipperton area, where CMC is surveying, it is estimated that there lies a reserve of 21 million tons of copper, 27 million tons of nickel, 4.6 million tons of cobalt and 528 million tons of manganese, according to data provided by Li's institute.

To put that figure into perspective, in 2016, China's whole-year manganese output was less than 3 million tons in metal volume, said Li, noting the vast quantity of deep-sea reserves.

"China is a big resource consumer. But on a per capita metric, China's mineral resource level only ranks 53rd  in the world. At the current estimate, China's copper, nickel, zinc and manganese reserves could run dry in about 20 years, in addition to a heavy reliance on foreign imports of copper and nickel," Li said, adding that land mines for cobalt, which is used to improve power batteries, face exhaustion in just 10 years.

"Most of the proven deep seabed metal resources are sorely needed by China, as the country, the world's second largest economy, advances its economy," Li said.

Dawn of a new era

Michael Lodge, secretary-general at the ISA, told the Global Times Thursday in an e-mail that, although some environmental groups want to ban deep seabed mining completely, the activity is legal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and is permitted only under the terms of UNCLOS and under a contract with the ISA.

"There is much interest in deep sea mining as a potential alternative, long term source for strategic minerals, including copper, cobalt and nickel. Interest has increased rapidly since 2011, but so far, there has been no successful commercial mining," Lodge said in the e-mail.

"It is likely that the next five years will indicate whether deep sea mining can be carried out on a commercial basis or not," Lodge said.

Australia-based Nautilus Minerals Inc is likely to become the world's first company to commercially explore deep seabed resources by a set timeframe of 2019 in the territorial waters off Papua New Guinea.

Li said that in the deep-sea mining sector, the equipment has to endure ultrahigh pressure and resist erosion from salt, as well as coping with total darkness down into the abyss.

In the future, according to Li, CMC's working environment will not enjoy the calm waters currently faced by Nautilus Minerals, whose work site is in relatively shallow waters of about 1,700 meters deep.

"For the Clarion-Clipperton zone, mining work will be conducted in open waters far away from land and will be carried out at a depth of about 4,500 to 5,500 meters. But [this means] the working ship might face severe weather conditions, including typhoons and huge waves," Li noted.

The voyage's mission

Li said knowledge on the deep sea environment is the prerequisite for maritime technologies while the main mission of the CMC experts aboard the vessel is to enrich their understanding of the zone, which is now considered a potential resources reserve.

"Teams will push the survey into greater details, based on previous scientific findings, as they treat the sea's surface as a virtual network of grids marked by coordinates sprawling over the contracted zone of 72,700 square kilometers. They will also access the scale of the reserves hidden thousands of meters down under and narrow down a trial mining area," noted Li.

They will also collect physical, chemical and biological data and evaluate the environmental impact of their mining activity, Li added.

"Available data indicates there is a reserve of 722 million tons of nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton area, and the economic value could reach $400 billion," Li said.

Li also said the target for Chinese scientists for deep-sea mining by 2020 is to excavate nodules containing manganese at a trial speed of 30 tons per hour and at a depth of 1,700 meters. In the near future, the target will be to push the depth to 4,500 meters.

Cost factor

"Deep seabed mining not only depends on the technology's reliability and the cost of mining and metallurgy, which should be comparable with the mineral development of overland mines, but also depends on the scarcity and the market prices of the metals mined," Li said.

The ISA is predicted to finalize its mining laws by year-end, the Financial Times reported in August.

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