"'Ders plenty more in dem thar ocean floor 'sides oil." Gold, diamonds, iron ore, copper - who needs to worry about running out of resources (at least for the immediate future, until technological enlightenment kicks in some # of decades down the road)? Like deep and ultra-deep oil drilling, underwater mining technology is coming along, too, though its years away from large-scale operations. Sounds crazy? Drilling in the North Sea was crazy three decades, consisting of high expense, and a fair sum of worker casualties under the wrath of the North Sea's cold, storm-tossed water; but now it's achieved without batting an eye, and it looks like a community college science project compared to what Petrobras, and others are doing presently.
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There's gold in that thar sea floor. Silver, copper, zinc and lead, too. The problem is, it's a mile or two underwater and encased in massive mineral deposits that layer a dark, mysterious world. But new technology and worldwide demand have combined to make mining for these metals economically feasible for the first time.
A breakthrough project is moving forward in New Guinea, and new rules to govern deep ocean mining will be set by an international authority this spring.
On Thursday, scientists, businessmen and policymakers from 20 countries meet on Cape Cod for a public forum on how to best extract these riches while protecting hidden worlds in the earth's oceans. Strange animals, from six-foot tubeworms to "blind" shrimp, thrive in water as acidic as battery acid, near "hydrothermal vents" that spew out mineral-laden liquid as hot as 750 degrees.
Scientists have long known about remarkably pure concentrations of metals found near some of the hydrothermal vents, nicknamed "black smokers" because they resemble underwater chimneys.
The vents sprout in areas with heavy seismic activity, including the mid-Atlantic ocean ridge and the Pacific's volcanic "Ring of Fire," which stretches along the west coast of the Americas, to Asia and down near New Zealand. There, the earth's spreading plates allow sea water to seep into the earth's crust, where it becomes heated, leaching precious minerals from the surrounding rock. Eventually, the water is hot enough to become buoyant and bursts toward the surface, similar to when cold milk is poured into a cup of coffee, gets heated and rises to the top. The minerals cool in the frigid sea water and solidify into the deposits.
About 200 active vents have been found, though only 10 nearby deposits are considered prolific enough to mine, according to a report by the International Seabed Authority. Dormant vents are much tougher to locate, but the deposits around them may also be fruitful.
The ISA report indicates a single deposit could weigh 100 million tons.
The first full-scale deep ocean mining project is being run by Canada-based Nautilus Minerals Inc., which is negotiating to mine an area about 1,600 meters (5,249 feet) deep off Papua, New Guinea, and hopes to be operating by 2011 or 2012. The project is piggybacking on technology developed by oil companies for deep water drilling, said Scott Trebilcock, Nautilus's vice president of business development.
Deposits would be extracted by 180-ton, remotely operated machines that oil companies developed to dig trenches for pipelines. The material is pumped in a mix of sea water to a ship on the surface, then pumped down so that the highly acidic water doesn't kill surface level sea life. The Nautilus project is planned within New Guinea's territorial water, a 200-mile zone from every country's coastline where it has exclusive ocean floor mining rights. But Trebilcock said the rules set by the ISA at its annual session, beginning in late May, will likely set precedents for all projects.
Most of the earth's known hydrothermal vents are outside the 200-mile zones, in open ocean that is under the jurisdiction of ISA, which was established in 1982 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States still has not signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty, which has been stalled for decades by Senate opponents who say it requires the country to surrender important sovereignty rights.