Seabed Mining, From a Pipe Dream to Reality

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 09:59

The technological revolution is slowly but surely integrating itself into traditional mining operations, with the incorporation of IoT and Industry 4.0, among other technologies. But increasingly more technologies are being developed for offshore and deepwater oil and gas production and miners are beginning to turn to the oceans too. If it holds oil and gas potential, what other minerals exist beneath the seabeds? “I am convinced that deep-sea mining will become a vital alternative to traditional mining methods and a solution to resource scarcity in the future,” says Henk Van Muijen, Managing Director of IHC Mining.
Given the upturn of mineral commodity prices, exhaustion of onshore deposits and the new technological advancements enabling offshore production, seabed mining is attracting the industry’s investment more and more. “Deep-sea deposits have, on average, much higher grades than those commonly found onshore and with commodity prices recovering, it is becoming more attractive by the day,” says Van Muijen.
IHC Mining is one of the pioneers taking offshore experience and technologies for oil and gas into the mining industry. In 2000, the company launched its first subsea crawler to operate in depths up to 1.5km. “There is a concentrated effort to improve the maximum operating depth of the subsea crawlers to at least 2km,” he adds. The world’s first seabed mine is to start production in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea in 2019 with the Solwara 1 Project for high-grade copper, silver, gold and aluminum. This groundbreaking initiative could be the pioneer that gives seabed mining the green light abroad. But its failure would be a setback that would be difficult for the industry to recover from, warns Van Muijen.
Regarding Mexico’s position, located between two oceans and with more than 11,000km of shoreline, not to mention the country’s already-discovered oil potential, seabed mining could represent a significant boost for the country’s economy. Due to the novelty of seabed mining and lack of exploration activity, there are few hard figures about the potential the ocean beds hold. But in April 2018, a team of Japanese scientists published a paper detailing an estimated 80-100 billion tons of rare-earth deposits it discovered beneath the Pacific Ocean sea floor. This is equal to about 1,000 times more than current proven recoverable onshore rare-earth reserves, according to the US Geological Survey and the study says it would be enough to supply the world on a “semi-infinite basis.”
But with six recognized coral reef regions across 1,780km2 and the unknown environmental implications of deep-sea mining, there is hesitance among the Mexican population to begin operations. The first Mexican deep-sea mining project was proposed by Exploraciones Oceánicas, a subsidiary of Florida-based Odyssey Minerals, but was initially unsuccessful due to an amparo filed by locals. The Don Diego offshore phosphate initiative, in Baja California Sur, was denied a license by SEMARNAT in May 2016.
The objective of the project is to produce 7 million t/y of phosphoric sand, over its 50-year lifetime. According to a report compiled by Exploraciones Oceánicas, “Prices for phosphate rock are currently US$130/t but have historically exceeded US$800/t and may considerably exceed this in the future as phosphate resources become scarcer.” The Mexican Supreme Court of Justice overruled the denial of the project in March 2018, setting a precedent for these types of operations.
To further address deep-sea mining reluctance and mitigate any potential environmental impact, the industry is trying to develop technologies to make this new technique sustainable. “If we are going to dig into the seabed, we are inevitably going to influence the ecosystem to a certain degree so we are working alongside various knowledge and research centers to minimize these impacts,” explains Van Muijen.
Deep-sea mining pioneers, such as IHC Mining and Odyssey Minerals, are carrying out offshore environmental impact tests to measure variables like noise, plumes, CO2 footprint and seabed alteration. “Simulated seafloor mining experiments have revealed significant information on the potential impacts that may occur as also several measures for conserving the environment have been suggested,” says ScienceDirect. “The idea is not to close the door to deep-sea mining given its unknown risk, but to start treading its waters with extra precaution.”