June 20, 2008

Going for Gold ; Engineering Firm Wins Undersea Mining Order


PIONEERING engineering work in the North East will be at the forefront of new attempts to mine gold and precious metals from the seabed.

Soil Machine Dynamics, based in Walker, Newcastle, have secured a pounds 30m contract to produce the first Seafloor Mining Tools (SMT) that are planned to be used off the coast of Papa New Guinea next year.

The company - which will design and manufacture the two machines at their Tyneside plant - have been given the contract by Vancouver- based company Nautilus - who are hoping to become the first in the world to mine the seabed.

And bosses at Soil Machine Dynamics - who employ around 150 people at their Walker-based plant - say they are delighted and excited about the project.

SMD managing director John Reece said: "We are very pleased to be awarded this prestigious contract.

"It will be a world first in an emerging and very exciting market.

"We look forward to working closely with Nautilus over the coming months to develop the system."

The mine where the remote vehicles will be used is in 1.5km of water in the Bismarck Sea, 50km north of Rabaul township in the western Pacific Ocean, near to Papa New Guinea, is the first project of its kind in the world.

The made-in-Newcastle SMT is a gigantic crab-like mining robot with multiple claws. It is capable of digging out huge amounts of rock.

It will be used near sea chimneys - called black smokers - that are formed when magma-heated water shoots up through the earth's crust, bringing with it gold, silver, copper and zinc.

The magma cools in the seawater and the minerals form at the base of the vents - first discovered in 1977 near the Galapagos Islands.

The crushed material will then be pumped to the surface through miles of pipe.

Scott Trebilcock, vice-president of corporate development at Nautilus, who will be carrying out the work, said: Undersea mining has some big advantages over land-based mining.

"From a construction perspective, we have to do very little other than deliver a machine to the sea floor.

"The whole mining system is a ship that moves into position over the site."

"Soil Machine Dynamics is building a chain drag trencher, which digs a huge 25m trench.

"The riser and lifting system uses pumps and pipes to get the water slurry up to a de-watering system on the boat.

We are using technology from the oil and gas industry."

SMD managed to win the contract with Nautilus against competition from around the world after a three-month tendering process.

Mark Collins, sales manager at SMD, said: "It was a technical tendering process - very in-depth. We had to do a feasibility study and spent six months putting stuff together.

"We will be providing both the machines themselves and equipment to launch them. It's all pretty specialised."

The UK has formally laid claim to 200,000 sq km of the Atlantic seabed surrounding Ascension Island, around 1,000 miles from the African coast, in the South Atlantic as the international race to establish underwater territories gains momentum.

In a submission lodged with the UN in May, Britain demarcated its bid to gain control of the area - almost equivalent to the UK's entire land surface.

The deadline of May 2009 for countries to submit maps of their underwater stakes is approaching, intensifying diplomatic rivalries in contested parts of the globe, such as the Arctic and Antarctica.

(c) 2008 Evening Chronicle - Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.