Allseas Starts Deep-Sea Trial of Nodule Mining
Swiss offshore contracting giant Allseas has started a deep-sea nodule mining test for The Metals Company – a Canadian startup in which Allseas holds an 80% share.
The Hidden Gem, Allseas’ converted drillship, has been deployed in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific. The ship will try out a cutting-edge subsea nodule collection system. It will carry a crawler that was specifically designed to sweep up and gather manganese nodules that form at the bottom of the sea. These small grape to potato-sized nodules has accumulated on the bottom of the ocean over a period of millions of years.
According to the International Seabed Authority, a high-quality manganese nodule has about 1.5% nickel, 1% copper, 30% manganese and approximately 0.24% cobalt, not to mention traces of rare earth metals. The total value for this nodule in the region is said to be $8 to 16 trillion.
“The multi-metal nature of the nodules means that a polymetallic nodule area is, in effect, two or three land-based mines in one, which means there is the potential to significantly reduce waste and CO2 emissions per ton of metal mined and minimize the number of other negative environmental and social effects associated with obtaining metals from our planet, such as deforestation and relocation of people,” Dr Kris Van Nijen, managing director of Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) explained.
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Allseas drillship helps the robotic nodule collection system
During its pilot test, the drillship – with the help of its robotic nodule collection system – managed to hoover up about 14 tons of nodules from a strip approximately 150 meters long over the span of just 1 hour. The Allseas ship utilized a riser system in order to collect the nodules from the bottom of the sea – about 4,300 meters below the surface. It uses compressed air to push the nodules up the pipe. Once collected at the surface, the nodules are then cleaned and stowed for transport.
The test is ongoing and is being monitored carefully for any effects on the environment. It is also being checked for sediment plume size and underwater acoustics amongst other items. A team of scientists are monitoring the development aboard a different ship to get data and study the project as well.
The Metals Company CEO Gerard Barron announced in a shareholder update, “We find ourselves at a historic moment in the development of this industry. Once again, our strategic partner Allseas has shown why they’re the best in the business when it comes to pioneering offshore engineering and operations. This is just the beginning, and we look forward to sharing more news as the trials and impact monitoring continue this quarter.”
Some scientists and oceanographers said that the impact of deep-sea mining in the area may not be remediable. Certain highly specialized bottom-dwellers live only on the nodules and little is known at the moment about this seabed environment.
Approximately 70 to 90% of species gathered from the area are unknown and new to science. These regions show unusually high biodiversity and there is a chance that the nodules themselves could be the main reason why.
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The last mining experiment in the Clipperton Zone caused a huge 8 meter wide track. In 1989, a plowing simulation called DISCOL plowed the area thereby creating a track devoid of sea life as a consequence of nodule extraction. According to sponsors, about 30 years later, local bottom-dwelling creatures have not returned to their original habitat.
However, supporters of the initiative opine that deep-sea mining could be crucial in the climate change discussion. Over the past years, governments have significantly started to shift towards greener, cleaner, and more sustainable practices. Sales from Electric Vehicles (EV) have significantly increased over the years, proving that much of the world is serious about cleaning up – including marine mining.
Deep Sea Mining – A controversial marine activity
Deep Sea Mining or DSM could prove pivotal in this transition. DSM is one of the world’s most controversial marine activities. Maritime mining and other DSM activities are said to cause damage like many other human activities.
The debate started with scientists and government agencies agreeing that it was too early to start mining the ocean floor as little was known about this new frontier and its ecosystems. Furthermore, the long-term effects of maritime mining are still impossible to determine at this point in time.
On September 8, 2022, the French Polynesia called for the banning of this maritime activity on its territory. The Minister for Marine Resources, Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu, said in a television interview, “If we have to examine what is on the ocean floor, it should be solely for the acquisition of knowledge, not for exploitation purposes.”
Apart from French Polynesia, the Deep Sea Conservative Coalition (DSSC) also called for a moratorium. Nauru started the countdown to DSM in June 2021, giving the International Seabed Authority (ISA) a few years to provide final regulations on marine mining.
Established in 1982 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ISA has been developing mining codes since 2014.
With about a year left, stakeholders involved in DSM face two big questions – whether the damage to the environment is worth the risk and how can the impact be mitigated if the industry progresses.