Lessons Learned from Deep-Sea Mining

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Author: G. P. Glasby
Date: July 28, 2000
From: Science(Vol. 289, Issue 5479)
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,274 words

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When published in 1965, J. L. Mero's Mineral Resources of the Sea (1) painted a picture of an essentially limitless resource of more than 1 trillion metric tons of manganese nodules on the Pacific deep-sea floor that were growing at a rate faster than could possibly be exploited, a literally inexhaustible supply of metals such as Mn, Co, Ni, and Cu. This book literally launched a hundred ships (or rather a hundred research cruises). An era of vigorous attempts at deep-sea mining ensued that resulted ultimately in very little return on investment. An examination of this history provides several lessons for planning complex international projects and regulations involving developed and developing countries and for the future of deep-sea mining and exploration.

Historical Development

The initial phase of investigating the possibility of deep-sea mining lasted from 1972 to 1982, shortly after the widespread abundance of metal nodules in the oceans was recognized. A major factor in initiating this research was the prediction of global mineral shortages.

Initial investigations on the possibility of deep-sea mining focused mainly on the area between the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zones (CCFZ) in the equatorial North Pacific. The United States funded 30 to 40 cruises, Germany 26 cruises, and France 42 cruises, mainly to this area, and the Soviet Union about 100 cruises worldwide. In 1977, Mero (2) calculated that the nodules from this North Pacific high-grade area covering an area of about 6 million [km.sup.2] would contain only about 11 billion metric tons of Mn, 115 million tons of Co, 650 million tons of Ni, and 520 million tons of Cu. He assumed that Mn nodules would be "in full-scale economic production within the next 5 to 10 years." The most recent resource estimate indicates that this area is not quite as rich but still contains about 7.5 billion metric tons of Mn, 78 million tons of Co, 340 million tons of Ni and 265 million tons of Cu (3).

Seven consortia were set up by companies, mainly from the United States, Germany, France, Britain, and Japan, to investigate the possible commercial exploitation of nodules. This work culminated in the successful testing of a system to mine deep-sea nodules at the pilot-plant stage in 1978, although the entire mining system was lost over the stern of the ship after about 800 metric tons of nodules had been recovered from the sea floor.

A further development raised false hopes: The Lockheed/OMCO consortium claimed to have developed a system using the Hughes Glomar Explorer as mother ship, for which sea trials were carried out in 1976 and 1978. A huge bay (82 m long) could be opened and closed in the ship's hull, through which a large, remotely controlled mining system could be deployed and retrieved at depths of 6000 m. Pipe handling and deployment were automated. However, it was subsequently revealed that the Glomar Explorer had been built by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency primarily to recover a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine at a cost of about US$500...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Glasby, G. P. "Lessons Learned from Deep-Sea Mining." Science, vol. 289, no. 5479, 2000, p. 551. Accessed 10 May 2021.

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