Resource-hungry China is stepping up activity in one of the final frontiers of mineral wealth – the remote seabeds lying kilometres beneath the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The world’s largest consumer and importer of minerals and metals is now studying the core technologies of seabed mining in the Indian Ocean, according to Tao Chunhui, one of the country’s leading oceanographers and a researcher at the State Oceanic Administration.
Vast sulphide deposits on the 3,000 metre deep seabed might contribute to China’s metal supplies in the long term as it tried to narrow the technological gap with other maritime powers, said Tao, who was chief scientist of a number of China’s Indian Ocean expeditions. The volcanically formed hydrothermal sulphides on the seabed contain copper, zinc and precious metals including gold and silver. They are formed in hot underground springs seeping through cracks in the seabed.
Tao said that to prepare for the future exploitation of seabed minerals, Chinese scientists are developing techniques to mine the ocean floor, extract minerals and bring them to the surface without damaging the environment.
“When we will actually be able to do it depends on commodity prices as well as the state of the technology,” he said. “Our focus now is to figure out where the minerals are.”
Unlike some of its contentious claims in the South China and East China seas, Beijing’s seabed mining activities have been carried with the full blessing and involvement of other countries under exploration contracts awarded by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental organisation established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to regulate deep-sea mining.
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