April 2, 2009

Technology Offers Promise In Ocean Mining

Modern technology and global demand have collaborated to make mining precious metals from the colossal, mysterious depths of the ocean floor economically practical for the first time in history, the Associated Press reported.  

In New Guinea, a progressive project is underway and new guidelines to preside over deep sea mining will be assigned by an international authority this spring.

Scientists, businessmen and policymakers representing 20 countries will meet in Cape Cod on Thursday for a round-table discussion on how best to remove these valued minerals, but still protect the life and composition within the oceanic environment.

Maurice Tivey, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, commented, "It's a unique set of life down there. Frankly, we haven't found everything. We need to make sure we go in with our eyes open."  Tivey is hosting the public ocean mining colloquium.

Extremely pure concentrations of metals are known to develop near hydrothermal vents, or rather termed "black smokers" for their resemblance of chimneys.

The vents are evident in locations with frequent seismic activity, particularly the mid-Atlantic ocean ridge and the Pacific's volcanic "Ring of Fire."  When the earth's plates split, sea water is permitted to soak into the earth's crust, where it becomes heated and creates precious metals from the encompassing rock.  

When the water is so hot it becomes buoyant, it forces its way toward the surface in a powerful thrust.  The minerals cool down in the cold waters of the ocean and harden into the deposits.  

The International Seabed Authority reports that only 10 of the 200 known active vents have been determined prolific enough to mine. Vents that lie dormant are much more difficult to find, but it is probable the deposits around them may be plentiful.   

The ISA accounted a single deposit could weigh up to 100 million tons.

Rod Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines said, "We want to cautious about concluding, in effect, that all our problems are solved. But clearly there's a possibility of significant quantities of resource there."

Because demand for metals has increased, interest in deep sea mining has sparked due to wide depletions in land-based resources.  Countries like China and India have rapidly escalating economies yet insufficient resources to support them.  

Widespread ocean mining is years away and the expense of such a project are hundreds of millions of dollars, but recent technology has investors seeing possibilities.  

Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals Inc. is in the ground stages of preparing the first full-scale deep ocean mining project, with aspirations of deployment by 2011 or 2012.  They have selected an area in the 200-mile territorial zone of Papua, New Guinea, making this an exclusive drilling zone that can only be permissible by New Guinea government.  

However, most the world's known hydrothermal vents are outside of this 200-mile territorial zone in open jurisdiction of ISA.  

The U.S. has been consulted regarding the regulations to be drafted however, proponents say the U.S. could be excluded from future claims to deep sea mines because they has not signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty.  By signing the agreement, a country becomes affiliated with the seabed authority.

Indications of a desire to sign the treaty have been made evident by the Obama administration.  This week's meeting at Woods Hole is ensuing as if the U.S. inevitably will have a say as a treaty participant.  

Scientists are seriously concerned with protecting the rare species that dwell near the vents.  Marine geologist, Peter Rona of Rutgers University describes the areas close to the vents "like another planet."  

Rona suggests that the species in these areas may indicate more about the origins of life on earth and possibly what life may look like elsewhere.  Species obtained from these areas have already proven beneficial.  An enzyme from microbes found there was utilized to improve the flow of oil retrieved from deep reservoirs.

"The mining needs to go forward, the environments need to be sustained and conserved," however Rona added, "That's a challenge, but it's doable."


On The Net:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

International Seabed Authority

Colorado School of Mines