Mining the Deep Sea and Outer Space for a Mineral Bonanza -by Harvey Morris (International Herald Tribune – January 26, 2013)

LONDON — Whatever happened to manganese nodules? As newly announced plans to mine the mineral wealth of asteroids generate a mixture of excitement and skepticism, it is worth recalling the fate of an earlier craze to exploit a potential metals bonanza somewhat closer to home.

From the early 1970s, the prospect of hauling up a boundless harvest of metal rich nodules from the deepest ocean beds was touted as the answer to the world’s increasing hunger for diminishing resources. The potato-size rocks that carpet the deep seabed — commonly known as manganese nodules — also contain a mix of other elements, including copper, cobalt and nickel.

Governments and private companies joined the treasure hunt as explorations were launched to determine whether projects to vacuum the nodules from miles below the ocean’s surface were commercially viable.

Lockheed Martin led a consortium of companies in an effort to develop a commercial mining operation, collecting thousands of nodules from an area of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico as part of an effort that would today cost more than $500 million.

Howard Hughes, the reclusive American tycoon, fueled the frenzy with the launch of the Glomar Explorer, a 618-foot ship he said was built to mine the manganese nodules. (It was, in fact, cover for a secret C.I.A. project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine.)

The potential “gold rush” was a factor that led to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that aimed to ensure that the seabed’s wealth outside territorial limits would be shared between developed and developing states.

However, a collapse in the international nickel price between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s shattered the prospects of instant wealth from the billions of tons of ore that lay just beyond the limits of technology available at the time.

The lure of the manganese nodule faded from public consciousness. As an article on the University of Texas’s Science and the Sea Web site stated in 2009: “A fortune is sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans. And for the foreseeable future, at least, it’s likely to stay there.”

Interest has been revived, however, by the increasing demand for so-called rare earth metals that are used in many modern high-tech products such as fiber optics, memory chips and liquid-crystal screens.

Studies by Lockheed Martin and others have determined that seabed nodules could provide an alternative source of such metals in a market presently dominated by China.

A Chinese embargo on rare earth metal shipments in 2010 was described by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, as a “wake-up call” for the world to find new resources.

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