Deep sea mining – by Elaine Maslin (Offshore Engineer – October 1, 2017)

Many are looking to a new resource, deep sea minerals, thanks to growth in demand from emerging economies and the development of new technologies that require increased supply of metals such as copper.

While interest in mining metals from the deeps has been ongoing since the 1960s, activity has remained low, due to low metal prices and the challenges of operating in deep sea environments. This activity is also the focus of strong local and environmental opposition.

Slowly, however, the pieces have been falling into place to permit this activity. In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Jamaica, to organize and regulate mineral-related activities in seabed areas beyond the limits of national jurisdictions.

More recently, the MIDAS project, which sought to assess the environmental hazards of deep sea mining, reported its findings. Many in the offshore sector, with technologies that could be complimentary to this space, are watching, but there are still concerns over its impact.

All that glitters

According to the MIDAS program, there are three types of resource: polymetallic (or manganese) nodules that occur in surficial seafloor sediments in abyssal plain muds, mainly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts (CRCs) that occur as a surface encrustation on seamounts and rock outcrops in all oceans, but with the richest deposits found in the western Pacific; and seafloor massive sulfides (SMS) that are formed at seafloor hot springs along ocean plate boundaries.

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