Mining the Deep
At the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, engineers are planning the world’s first underwater mine
PHOTO: Hydrothermal vents spew minerals from cracks in the Earth’s crust. (NOAA / Nature Source /
MAP: The proposed mine would be located in the Bismarck Sea near Papua New Guinea. (Jim McMahon)
A Canadian mining firm plans to drill for precious metals in an unlikely place—the bottom of the sea! The firm, Nautilus Minerals, will be mining resources from land it owns deep in the Bismarck Sea near Papua New Guinea. This site will become the world’s first commercial (done for money) seafloor mine.
Nautilus plans to begin mining for sulfides—rocks containing high levels of gold, silver, copper, and zinc—at the site. The minerals in these sulfides are rare and valuable. They can be used to make electronic devices, like cell phones and computers.
Here’s how the mining will work: Remote-controlled robots will drill for sulfides on the ocean floor, 5,250 feet below sea level. They will remove the sulfides from hydrothermal vents, which spew the minerals from cracks in the Earth’s crust. A separate machine will collect and pump the deposits to a support ship at the surface.
A NEW WAY TO MINE
Until now, seafloor mining had rarely been explored. Many mineral sources exist on land, and the environmental impact of mining under the ocean is unknown.
However, because of the growing demand (desire) for these precious minerals, companies are looking for new ways to find the mineral resources needed to make them. So some have started to focus more attention on underwater mining. Nautilus received the world’s first deep-sea mining lease in January 2011.
Some environmental groups believe not enough is known about the mine’s risk to the environment. They say the mine was approved based on an incomplete study of its potential environmental effects.
Nautilus claims its undersea mining will not affect communities, fisheries, or reefs, and will have minimal effects on the environment. Once mining at the Papua New Guinea site is complete, the company plans to begin mining other undersea land it owns across the western Pacific—and expects other companies to follow its lead. If the mining procedures are demonstrated to be safe, the company predicts that up to one third of the world’s minerals could eventually come from the seafloor.