Seafloor mining robots and equipment nearing completion to mine for gold, silver and copper

The Canadian company Nautilus Minerals is the leader in marine mineral exploration. Nautilus Minerals has developed robotic technology for deep-sea mining in collaboration with the French company Technip. The company is planning to open the first deep-water mine in 2015. The Solwara 1 mine will be located 1600 metres below sea level. The company has found large deposits of copper and gold there. Solwara 1 is located in the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia, in Papua New Guinea.

Nautilus Minerals plans to continue searching for additional commercially viable deposits of copper, gold, zinc, and silver outside of Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. Solwara 1 was supposed to start operations in 2013, but this was postponed.

Nautilus Minerals will use submersible robots to work on the ocean floor and break apart loose ore. A pipeline will then transport the ore to a specialty vessel on the surface, which then will transport the ore to shore for refining.

Nautilus Minerals has a sales agreement with a Chinese company for the minerals that are recovered. China has a huge demand for copper.

“This is an extremely rich deposit of gold and copper,” says Terje Bjerkgård from Norway’s Geological Survey (NGU). He studies mineral resources and has participated in two research expeditions that included the area around Papua New Guinea.

“Underwater mining will first be commercialized in the Pacific,” he says. “The largest known deposit on the ocean floor is in Middle Valley in the northeast Pacific Ocean, off Canada. Other interesting deposits are north of New Zealand. Underwater mining will become more viable as land-based deposits become harder and more expensive to exploit. The challenges are tied to the distinct fauna around the hot springs.”

Many countries are active in securing rights to underwater mineral resources, even though the start of large-scale mining efforts remains years away.

“Many countries, such as China, Russia, Japan, France and India, are positioning themselves strategically to secure resource areas in international waters,” says Søreide. “The politics of international oceans is full of intricate details, with a lot of the laws tied to the international laws of the sea.”

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Statoil, and the mining company Nordic Mining are collaborating on a research project that will map marine mineral resources along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

“Our primary goal is to map potential resources,” says Fredrik Søreide, an adjunct professor at NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology who is heading up the project. “We can then prioritize research and development as we move ahead.”

Researchers from the university’s Department of Geology and Mineral Resources Engineering and Applied Underwater Robotics Laboratory will also participate in this project.

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