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As nearly 70% of the earth’s surface is made up of water and mineral resources are severely depleted on land, several mining companies are exploring the concept of deep sea mining.
Deep Sea Mining Technology
Deep sea mining or underwater mining is the process of retrieving new minerals from the ocean floor. Deep sea mining sites are generally located in close proximity to areas around hydrothermal vents or polymetallic nodules, which are present at depths of 1400m to 3700 m in the ocean.
Underwater mining began over three decades ago, and high concentrations of mineral resources have been discovered since from several new underwater mining deposits. Deep sea mining technology extracts minerals using either a continuous-line bucket system or a hydraulic suction system.
This mining process is an effective way of collecting rare earth elements in large quantities. Deep sea mining is also suitable for mining gas hydrates, gravel, metal compounds and coal.
Nautilus Minerals Inc. is the major key player in underwater mining technology and is currently operating off the Papua New Guinea coast. So far, the company has successfully mined mineral resources such as lead, zinc, silver, copper and gold.
Researchers believe that the retrieval of minerals from certain parts of the sea bed may disturb the benthic layer, resulting in high levels of toxicity in the water column and the formation of sediment plumes. There are also major concerns about the chemical modification in the mining region due to corrosion, spills and leakage.
It is crucial that governments and mining companies ensure that the mining processes are carried out in a responsible manner with minimum damage to the underwater environment. Without these efforts, deep sea will not be sustainable in the long term.
Future of Underwater Mining
The increased demand for precious metals in countries such as Korea, China, India and Japan, coupled with the depletion of mineral resources on land, has encouraged mining companies to search for new mineral resources.
Recently, the International Seabed Authority signed around 17 new contracts to allow the exploration of polymetallic nodules underwater. In addition, at a recent summit on Deep-Sea Mining in London, the Minister of Minerals and Natural Resources of the Cook Islands’ stated that the country has adopted underwater mining as a means to increase its GDP by a factor of 100.
References and Further Reading
Deep-Sea Mining—Bonanza or Boondoggle? - PBS