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Race to send robots to mine fossils from the ocean floor

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Race to send robots to mine fossils from the ocean floor
Maersk Launcher cruising in the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific
When the 300-foot Maersk Launcher docked in San Diego early Monday morning, it unloaded a catch consisting of hard black lumps collected from the ocean floor.These lumps are not rocks, but naturally formed metal nodules which could someday give us cobalt, manganese, and nickel-not to mention the rare earth metals.
The worldwide demand for metals is growing along with the growth of batteries for electric cars and wind turbines, next-generation technologies, and weapons systems. The ocean floor is the main target of these mine developments. Of course, lifting these potato-sized nodules from the bottom somewhere in the remote part of the Pacific and then transporting them to a processing plant that extracts metal from them is no easy task at all.
Race to send robots to mine fossils from the ocean floor
What is mined on the ocean floor : benthic polymetallic nodules, mined in the area licensed by NORI
But executives at a Canadian mining company DeepGreen Metals. and its NORI (Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.) division, believe they’ve figured out how to collect nodules without destroying deep-sea habitat – and profit from it at the same time.
"Nature created these metal-rich resources that are essential to our future, " says Deep Green director Gerard Barron, a former advertising technology entrepreneur from Australia who has invested $8 million of his own money in an underwater mining venture. "This is the new oil. Our nodules contain everything we need to make batteries for electric cars."
A team of more than 70 technicians, researchers, and scientists has just completed a seven-week voyage aboard the Maersk Launcher in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. a 4.4-million-square-kilometre Pacific Ocean tidbit between Hawaii and Mexico that is rich in the world’s supply of these nodules.
Race to send robots to mine fossils from the ocean floor
Application of a device for collecting polymetallic modules from the seabed
Explorers aboard the ship dropped box-shaped coring devices to a depth of 3, 600 meters to collect sample nodules as well as lift sediment and mud from the bottom. Mobile autonomous underwater vehicles filmed the entire operation, provided orientation, and collected water quality data. This mission was the first of several required to determine the environmental impact of mining operations that DeepGreen must conduct to obtain final approval from the International Seabed Authority. The Authority oversees exploration and mining in the Clipperton Zone and has given out mining rights to various countries, including DeepGreen’s partner, the island nation of Nauru
DeepGreen says it wants to behave appropriately with the inhabitants of the seafloor. It recently hired Greg Stone, former chief scientist International Society for Conservation of Nature to help plan mining with the least impact on the seafloor and its inhabitants. "For the first time, we’re getting together and planning the whole operation ahead of time before we start mining, " Stone says. He notes that DeepGreen also relies on data from previous attempts to collect these mineral-rich sediments. This includes the infamous vessel " Glomar Explorer. " which was involved in a project that turned out to be secret CIA effort to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine from the bottom.
"We rely on decades of developing laws and years of research to properly describe the seafloor and build deep-sea models to make sense of the currents, the animals that live there, and the changes that occur, " Stone says.
Race to send robots to mine fossils from the ocean floor
DeepGreen says it is developing a tracked sweeper that it hopes to try out in the next year or two. The idea is to send an autonomous vehicle across the seafloor just a few centimeters away. The assembly unit would be connected to a pumping hose that would suck the nodules to the surface, to the ship. Stone says the closed-loop system will return cold ocean water to the bottom, rather than dumping it on the warm surface to minimize environmental impact.
They also want to ensure that they don’t disturb the structure of the bottom. This can be done by staggered assembly of fossils. The idea is to leave areas untouched by assembly where seafloor inhabitants can hide or move around. "We’ll apply the most successful methods and principles, cataloging all the creatures that live there to see if there are any unique features in our path, " Stone says. – If we find an area with a unique species living in a few hundred square kilometers or meters, we’ll miss it. If we find that the entire bottom is about the same, we’ll make sure the work is done in a patch fashion so we don’t destroy the entire area."
Despite all the precautions, some oceanologists find it very difficult to leave the bottom untouched. Andrea Koszynski-Fritzsche of Jacobs University in Bremen is studying the possible effects of mining on different deep-sea habitats. She compares the impact of fossil mining to a fishing trawl being pulled along the bottom. "The impact on bottom sediments turns out to be quite comparable, but recovery will be slower than from trawlers, " says Koszinski-Fritzsche. – There’s a lot more food on the continental shelf than there is in the deep-sea ecosystem." She says scientists still don’t know much about the diversity and populations of worms, mollusks, fish and other inhabitants of the dark world of the sea floor.
Of course, such uncertainties don’t stop mining companies like DeepGreen or London-based Seabed Resources, a division of Lockheed-Martin, planning various tests and pilot projects before launching full-scale operations in the coming years. In April. Japanese researchers announced about the discovery of huge reserves of similar black nodules containing rare-earth metals, which should last for many hundreds of years, just 1, 900 kilometers southeast of Tokyo. Apparently, the slow race for underwater riches has just gotten a nice boost of speed.

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