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De Tijd: Truffles from the Pacific Ocean, by Marc De Roo
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DEME has put the finishing touch on a nodule collector to pick up mineral-rich manganese nodules from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. If successful, the Belgian dredging company will tap into a goldmine.
‘In April 2019, our robot will be headed for the water,’ according to Kris Van Nijen, Managing Director of GSR, the DEME subsidiary in charge of deep-sea mining. ‘In May, we want to make it to San Diego with the message that our mission has been accomplished. It remains very exciting. There is always the risk of something not working. The deep sea has no mercy.’
We are at the site of engineering company De Meyer in Temse, where the workshop staff is putting the finishing touches on the Patania II, a 12-metre-long, 4-metre-wide, 4.5-metre-high, 25-ton tracked ‘vacuum’ on caterpillar tracks, bursting with electronics. All materials – special plastic and super-light steel – as well as the protective casing around the electronics core, the cameras, and sensors have been designed to withstand pressures of 500 bar. At a depth of 4.5 km, the pressure on the seabed is comparable to that of an elephant trampling the tiny surface of a stamp.
In the early part of next year, the nodule collector Patania II – the name is referring to the fastest caterpillar on earth – is set to travel to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, an area in the Pacific Ocean the size of the US, somewhere between Hawaii and Mexico.
There, it will demonstrate a world first by ‘collecting’ manganese nodules from the seabed. These nodules, weighing one kilogramme each, are freely dispersed across the seabed and consist of 1.3 percent nickel, 1.2 percent copper, 27 percent manganese and 0.25 percent cobalt. These are precious metals – the nodules are therefore sometimes called the “truffles of the sea”, which also refers to their resemblance to the edible mushrooms (truffles) of the Périgord region – that are used in the electronics and manufacturing sectors.
A relatively small area of the seabed holds more nickel, cobalt and manganese than can be found in the entire rest of the world.
Due to the population growth and the ever-increasing consumption, these materials are at risk of becoming exhausted in the near future. Dredging company DEME therefore came up with the plan, three years ago, to extract minerals from the seabed and to operate deep sea mines. It purchased the Ostend company G-tec Sea Mineral Resources, which had received a 15-year licence from the International Seabed Authority to search for minerals in an area twice the size of Belgium.
Last year, GSR tested the small robot Patania I, a 5 m2 prototype. While performing tests on the seabed for three weeks, they strived to find a balance between speed, performance and respect for the environment. The robot, controlled from a ship by a 5-km-long cable and joystick, was not supposed to cause excessive turbidity of the waters, for example, as this can negatively impact the environment.
‘De tests were successful’, according to Van Nijen, ‘We had to reach 0.5 m/second to be productive. At these depths, no one has ever done this before. In 23 days, the robot had to dive nine times before everything was finally working. One time, we dealt with a water leak the size of a pencil point.’
With the Patania II, GSR is taking a second big step forward. The robot will vacuum up nodules and bring them to the surface for further research. Based on the Patania I tests, GSR prepared a ‘provisional’ 300-page environmental impact assessment (EIA). ‘In it, we describe our research on the indirect impact of the mining-related sediment plumes on seabed organisms, which types of fauna live on the nodules, the extent of the turbidity in the aftermath of our work, etc.’
Marine scientists are keeping a watchful eye on the test robot
‘Scientists from all over the world are watching DEME’s tests like a hawk,’ according to Sarah Vanden Eede, ocean expert with the World Wild life Fund (WWF). ‘These tests are the only way to determine if deep-sea mining is a good idea, from an ecological perspective, or the worst idea ever. Once and for all, it will show us the effects of machines operating on the seabed. Otherwise, our perspective is crystal clear. The deep sea is a fragile ecosystem. Anything we do there can have severe consequences. That’s why we strive for a world where deep-sea mining isn’t needed.’
Rather, Vanden Eede is a big believer in recycling and circular economy. ‘Europe has recently requested for the member states to halt their support for deep-sea mining and to focus on sustainable production instead. A lot of studies base the future demand for metals on the situation as it is right now. But we have yet to develop a fully circular economy. It is very likely that in ten years, the demand for metals will be completely different and deep-sea mining may not be considered needed.’
Vanden Eede also questions the EIA report published by DEME. ‘The company concludes that the environmental impact of its robot will not be that far-reaching. Reading the entire document, however, you can’t help but notice the many gaps and determine that significant effects cannot be excluded. On top of that, DEME makes no mention of what it will do if the tests turn out to be disappointing. Will they quit? Adjust the robot? Or just keep on digging?’
Marine biology professor Ann Vanreusel is happy with the presence of an independent research consortium that is sponsored by Europe and monitors DEME’s tests from aboard a second ship. ‘The company does not have to do that.’ As for herself, she is present on both ships, together with her University of Ghent (UGent) research group.
Vanreusel still sees many questions when it comes to deep-sea mining. ‘The concern of the NGOs and the international community is largely justified. It will still take a long time before we get a better understanding of the area’s ecosystem. It will be crucial to find out how far the sediment plumes, caused by the digging operations on the seabed, may spread. Will they remain local? Or will they spread to protected areas, hundreds of kilometres away, and have their impact felt on the local fauna? Let’s hope that adequate protection criteria will be put in place to correct management of the mining operations where needed. If all licensed companies would start mining at the same time, the impact on the seabed could be enormous. As far as testing is concerned: it is now or never. If we don’t do it, questions about the impact of deep-sea mining will be raised again soon enough.’
To better anticipate the concerns of environmental organisations – as DEME is entering a whole new field of which nobody knows the ecological impact – the Antwerp-based company decided to share the report with the world, so everybody would have a chance to respond. Van Nijen: ‘An independent research ship with 50 scientists sitting right by our side to monitor our respect for the environment. That is quite unique.’
Van Nijen is also in talks with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the NGO of which Greenpeace and the WWF, among others, form a part. ‘The discussions are very constructive. We will be the first industry in the world for which an EIA is developed hand in hand with new legislation, and this before the industry even really exists.’
‘It is obvious that we will have an impact,’ according to Van Nijen. ‘Every industry has its downsides. But we strive to limit these effects to a minimum. If we cannot show a smaller ecological footprint than that of on-shore mining, we shouldn’t even start.’
Van Nijen claims to understand the concerns of environmental organisations. ‘They appear to be especially worried about deep-sea mining operations of other countries that perform tests in their own waters. That’s why they want strict legislation. We will make sure to set the bar high. That will only make it harder for the competition.’
500 metres below sea level, GSR installed a system of buoys with sensors to measure the environmental impact. Van Nijen: ‘We will never cause the type of disasters you see in the oil and gas industry. In the end, we are only shifting sand.’
Van Nijen believes that deep-sea mining is needed for us to have sufficient commodities to keep our cars, electronics and batteries running. ‘The on-shore mining industry is reaching its limits,’ according to Van Nijen, as he refers to a recent study of the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). This study states that nickel will reach its peak production in 2025, cobalt in 2026, copper in 2034, molybdenum in 2045 and manganese in 2050. Recycling is part of the solution, but not sufficient to keep up with an annual population growth of 3 percent.
DEME has already invested 60 million in its deep-sea project. If the Patania II passes the tests, GSR is planning to develop a large nodule robot, the Patania III. It will come with a price tag of 25 million, 15 million more than that of its predecessor. Van Nijen hopes to start the commercial extraction in 2026. By then, DEME also plans to build a special ship to collect the nodules and transfer them to container ships that will transport them to the on-shore processing installations, which is a five-day trip.
If DEME succeeds in its mission, it will tap into a goldmine. Van Nijen: ‘The area we claim holds 15 kg of nodules per square metre. That is an extraordinarily high concentration. The nodules of the entire Clipperton Zone – 80 times our licensed area – hold more nickel, manganese and cobalt than the rest of the world.’