The treasures that litter the world’s seabeds aren’t in pirates’ chests; they’re in fist-sized lumps of ore that are rich in minerals and metals such as cobalt, a key component in electronic devices, as well as copper, molybdenum, nickel, and others.
But a lack of workable technology, coupled with the relative abundance of these minerals topside, has kept those treasure-laden nodules down deep.
Now Global Sea Mineral Resources, a Belgian venture, plans to start scooping up those lumps of ore with the Patania II, a bulldozer-size vehicle trundling along the ocean floor and operating four vacuums to suck up the rocks.
A test is planned in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a deep abyssal plain stretching most of the way from Baja Mexico to Hawaii that’s been estimated to hold 27 billion tons of the mineral wealth.
In the test, the Patania II will run back and forth in 400-meter swaths (about 1,300 feet) gathering its payload. When its collection bin is full, the vehicle will deposit its load in a pile. Because this is a test, no provision has been made to lift the collected rocks to the surface.
The company is cooperating with German scientists to gather extensive data about the impact of the operation on the zone’s array of exotic sea life and ecosystems. The monitoring team has placed sensors throughout the sea floor where the test is taking place and the Patania II will be trailed by an underwater drone taking video.
The seabed is an easier place to gather minerals than the Earth’s surface: there are no jungles to navigate, no national borders to negotiate, and less political noise. But our seas are already stressed with chemical runoff, rising temperatures, and shrinking habitats and numbers of species.
Any attempt to extract minerals will have to show a minimal impact on the oceans’ ecosystems to win approval from marine scientists and environmental watchdogs. Large-scale exploitation of the seabed’s mineral wealth is at least a decade away.