Sustainable Deep Sea Mining

11/08/2014

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Peter Kukla

Head of the Institute of Geology and Paleontology

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+49 241 80 95720

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The deep sea is a vast repository of raw materials. Whether rare-earth metals, copper, cobalt or nickel: the seabed is rich in resources that are essential in the production of e.g. smartphones, computers, and high-tech medical devices. For this reason, expert teams from 19 European industry and research organizations joined forces to launch the “Blue Mining” research project, which seeks to develop new cost-effective environmentally-friendly deep-sea mining solutions. The RWTH Institute of Mining Engineering I and the RWTH Institute of Geology and Paleontology are partners in this project, providing expertise in the areas of exploratory methods, deposit modeling, sustainable mining methods and technologies, georesources management, and economic feasibility assessment. The Blue Mining project is receiving 15 million Euros in funding from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Program.

 

Acquisition of Deep-Sea Mining Rights

Two types of marine ores are at the focus of interest: first, there are manganese nodules, which lie on the seabed sediment and which are rich in manganese, copper, nickel, titanium, and cobalt. Second, there are massive sulfides, chemical compounds of sulfur and metal, which contain zinc, gold, and copper.

As Professor Per Nicolai Martens, Head of the Institute of Mining Engineering I, explains: “Due to the increased worldwide demand for mineral resources, the industrial nations are looking for new mineral deposits.”

Such deposits were found, among other locations, in the Pacific ocean. The territory between Mexico and Hawaii, in particular the so-called Clarion-Clipperton zone, is expected to have vast mineral deposits. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN organization, is responsible for controlling all mineral-related activities in this region. One of ISA’s responsibilities is to grant temporary rights to explore such deep sea zones. Since 2006, Germany, among other states, has a license for a potential deep-sea mining zone.

Maritime mining, however, is still in its infancy. So far, no nation has begun any mining activities in international territory. This has many reasons, as Professor Peter Kukla of the Institute of Geology and Paleontology explains: “So far, the composition as well as the distribution of the manganese nodules is largely unknown, and we are talking about a terrain the size of the United States – 5000 meters below sea level. Furthermore, mining technology poses a big challenge, and so does environmental protection.”

Aachen Researchers to Create Deposit Models and Carry Out Economic Feasibility Studies

The Blue Mining project seeks to address these challenges in different work packages. Teams from RWTH, for instance, are responsible for creating two deposit models. “Deep sea drilling is complex and costly,” said Peter Kukla. For this reason, a one-kilogram sample is used to draw conclusions on the characteristics of ten thousands of tons of deposit.

The recovery of manganese nodules requires a two-dimensional model representing the seabed surface and the nodule distribution in the area under investigation. “For the massive sulfide deposits, we create a three-dimensional computer simulation model, as the sulfides are located in part under the seabed surface,” adds Kukla. “The calculations draw on several aspects, such as drilling results and results from geophysical, geochemical, and mineralogical investigations.”

Comprehensive Feasibility Studies

Furthermore, the Aachen researchers collect all data relevant to assessing the economic feasibility of exploiting both types of deposit. This includes, for example, costs for drilling rigs, staff, test drillings, environmental management. Peter Nicolai Martens explains: “It is our job to carry out economic feasibility studies for the exploitation of both the manganese nodule and massive sulfide deposits. In the final analysis, we need to find out whether the costs for exploiting and processing the resources will be lower than the market price. Only then will there be investors for such large-scale products.”

The results from these studies will be part of a comprehensive overall feasibility study conducted by the Blue Mining research consortium over the next few years. “This groundbreaking study, which will also include a a risk analysis, will be a model for future studies at the international level,” said Dr. Ludger Rattmann, Head of the sub-project “Sustainable Deposit Management.”

Such studies are gaining in importance: In future, the ISA will require comprehensive feasibility studies before granting mining rights in international seabed areas. But this will take a few years: “So far, there is not only a lack in feasibility studies, there is also no internationally valid mining right as a basis for the exploitation of mineral resources,” said Rattmann. Currently, the ISA is in the process of developing the necessary legal framework.