Deep sea mining: new depths

In 2019, the world’s first commercial deep-sea mine is due to open. But are regulations in place to protect the sea floor?

By Science Focus (BBC)

Every time you pick up your smartphone, you hold in your hand a veritable periodic table of elements. Among the metals under the casing there’s cobalt, nickel and indium, plus traces of 16 of the 17 so-called rare earth metals. They’re all dug up in mines dotted across the globe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Philippines, Chile and China. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, smartphones could contain metals that come not from land but from the deep sea. Mining the deep isn’t a new idea. For several decades, mining corporations have eyed up the mineral riches that lie in Davy Jones’s Locker. But it’s always been too expensive to operate machinery kilometres beneath the waves and metal prices too unsteady to make it worthwhile. Now, though, the first deep-sea mines are closer than ever to opening.

In 2018, a test of deep-sea mining methods was carried out in the waters off Japan. In 2019, the world’s first commercial deep-sea mine is due to open off Papua New Guinea. And there’s growing interest in mining vast swathes of open ocean, known as the high seas, that lie far from shore and no countries own. Currently, mining corporations are prospecting 1.3 million square kilometres of the high seas, roughly the area of Alaska. Before any mines can open, however, a new rule book needs to be written, laying down international regulations on how mining will operate. The rules that book will contain are currently being negotiated with the aim of releasing a final list by 2020. When that happens, the first seabed mines in the high seas could begin operating.

Tech’s deepening reach

The main targets for deep-sea mining are potato-sized rocks, known as nodules, that lie scattered across flat abyssal plains. Miners are also prospecting underwater mountains, called seamounts, and the tall chimneys of hydrothermal vents. The extraction system will involve gargantuan machinery bristling with enormous drill bits and operating remotely, thousands of metres down, to scrape off the metal-rich crusts of seamounts and crush vent chimneys. Machines with giant caterpillar tracks will crawl across the seabed scooping up nodules. Then, rocky slurry will be pumped up to ships on the surface for processing.

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