China set to make breakthrough in deep-ocean mining of rare, hotly-demanded metals

Updated 2017-09-27 10:00:53 Global Times

Before mankind's first commercial deep-sea mining endeavor begins in 2019, China's Xiang Yang Hong 06 survey vessel is currently examining the seabed of the East Pacific for precious metals in a three-month-long voyage. A leading expert in China's seabed mining quest says of the voyage that the country is sailing toward a program that will see the extraction of 30 tons of minerals per hour from 1,700 meters beneath the sea by 2020, minerals that are much-needed in the country.

In August, the Xiang Yang Hong 06 vessel left Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province for the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the East Pacific, south of the Hawaiian Islands, to search for polymetallic nodules.

Aboard the survey vessel are experts from China Minmetals Corp (CMC), in the company's first voyage to search for mining opportunities for deep-sea rare metals.

CMC is one of the only 27 contractors for deep-sea mining within the Pacific Ocean under the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body, headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica, that governs all mineral-related activities on international seabed areas that are beyond the limits of national jurisdictions.

Calling from the sea

"It is not a matter of whether China needs to conduct voyages in deep-sea mining, it is a matter of should we begin such voyages now, or five years later, or 10 years later," Li Maolin, deputy general manager at the Changsha Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Co in Central China's Hunan Province, told the Global Times on Friday.

Li's company, a subsidiary of CMC, oversees the survey activity aboard Xiang Yang Hong 06.

Seabed mineral resources mainly refer to three types of deposits - polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich crusts and polymetallic sulfide deposit. Some of these metals are vital ingredients for emerging industries such as new-energy vehicles.

The deep seabed minerals are huge in quantity and boast excessive concentration compared with their land equivalents, Li said.

In the Clarion-Clipperton area, where CMC is surveying, it is estimated that there lies a reserve of 21 million tons of copper, 27 million tons of nickel, 4.6 million tons of cobalt and 528 million tons of manganese, according to data provided by Li's institute.

To put that figure into perspective, in 2016, China's whole-year manganese output was less than 3 million tons in metal volume, said Li, noting the vast quantity of deep-sea reserves.

"China is a big resource consumer. But on a per capita metric, China's mineral resource level only ranks 53rd in the world. At the current estimate, China's copper, nickel, zinc and manganese reserves could run dry in about 20 years, in addition to a heavy reliance on foreign imports of copper and nickel," Li said, adding that land mines for cobalt, which is used to improve power batteries, face exhaustion in just 10 years.

"Most of the proven deep seabed metal resources are sorely needed by China, as the country, the world's second largest economy, advances its economy," Li said.

Dawn of a new era

Michael Lodge, secretary-general at the ISA, told the Global Times Thursday in an e-mail that, although some environmental groups want to ban deep seabed mining completely, the activity is legal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and is permitted only under the terms of UNCLOS and under a contract with the ISA.

"There is much interest in deep sea mining as a potential alternative, long term source for strategic minerals, including copper, cobalt and nickel. Interest has increased rapidly since 2011, but so far, there has been no successful commercial mining," Lodge said in the e-mail.

"It is likely that the next five years will indicate whether deep sea mining can be carried out on a commercial basis or not," Lodge said.

Australia-based Nautilus Minerals Inc is likely to become the world's first company to commercially explore deep seabed resources by a set timeframe of 2019 in the territorial waters off Papua New Guinea.

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