August 7, 2009

Japan Will Use Deep-sea Probes To Hunt For Minerals

New unmanned probes have been developed and are ready for a full-scale survey of the seafloor of Japanese coastal waters on a hunt for mineral deposits.

An official of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) said Thursday that the project will involve sending two underwater robots strapped to a ship in hope of discovering rare minerals in the seabed.

The project is set to begin in fiscal year 2010.

The chief mission of the researchers will be to find and study hydrothermal deposits at the bottom of the sea that could contain minerals, such as manganese, cobalt, lead and zinc. These minerals are used in a variety of Japanese products, ranging from cars to the batteries in IT gadgets.

A seafloor hydrothermal deposit refers to an outlet for releasing heated water in the periphery of a seabed volcano. Until now, ultrasonic waves were sent from the surface of the sea to check on the topographical features of the area.

Experts had previously expressed hope that the new probe would be able to directly examine the seafloor, since ultrasonic waves could not be used to find out the level of metal components.

JAMSTEC, a government-linked agency that specializes in environmental research and marine technology, plans to invest $42.55 million in the probes and upgrading the ships used to haul the probes for surveys, the official said.

This project is part of Japan's attempt to assert its independence from foreign imports of raw materials and energy.

With an increasing demand from emerging economies causing concern about a supply crunch, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is attempting to secure stable supplies of rare metals.

"It is extremely important to ensure stable supplies of rare metals from the standpoint of maintaining and strengthening the competitiveness of Japan's manufacturing industry," the ministry said in a strategy published last week.

It went on the emphasize how vital it is for Japan to "strengthen the technology it holds for securing natural resources."

According to experts, deep-sea mining will become possible regardless of the enormity of the technical difficulties and expenses, as particular minerals because scarce worldwide, especially near mineral-discharging hydrothermal vents on the sea-floor.


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