NIOT teams up with Russian research unit to mine for minerals in the deep sea

M. Ramesh | | Updated on: Aug 01, 2019
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India to prospect in an area allotted in the Indian Ocean by UN seabed body

The National Institute of Ocean Technology, Chennai, will collaborate with Krylov State Research Centre in Russia to develop machines to gather minerals from the ocean floor.

An MoU was signed by M A Atmanand, Director, NIOT, and Rostislav Atkov, Deputy Director General, KSRC, last week to jointly develop machines and technologies for deep-sea mineral mining. The MoU also mentions collaboration in developing a manned submersible vehicle, Samudrayaan, capable of operating in deep seas.

The ocean abounds with mineral wealth, but are difficult to extract. India has been allotted an area in the Indian Ocean by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the Jamaica-based UN body that regulates mineral-related activities in seas outside various countries’ exclusive Economic Zones.

The ocean floor is littered with potato-like ‘polymetallic nodules’ that bear metals such as copper, nickel, manganese and cobalt. However, the ocean bed is 5,500 metres from the surface. At that depth, the water pressure is a crushing 550 times the atmospheric pressure — enough to crush a car in minutes.

The challenge is to build a machine that can withstand such a pressure, crawl on the soft ocean bed, and gather and bring the nodules to a ship. The machine’s tracks can sink in the ocean bed requiring it to be buoyed up. Further, the crushed nodules need to be pumped up 6 km. “It is an extremely challenging task,” Atmanand told BusinessLine today.

NIOT says it has developed a vehicle capable of going 6 km deep though it has tested it up to depths of 890 metres.

Krylov wants to use NIOT’s know-how; it would bring to the table its expertise in high pressure pumps and the capability to test the vehicle. G Ananda Ramadass, Head of Deep Sea Technologies at NIOT, expects to put the crawler on the Indian Ocean bed for testing in February 2020. A demonstration of mining of minerals could happen in a couple of years from then.

Exploration rights

The area allotted to India is in the Central Indian Ocean Basin. Ramadass said that India only has exploration rights, though there would be no issues in securing exploitation rights from the ISA after following due process.

A government press release dated August 21, 2017 says that India has rights over 75,000 sq km in international waters allocated by the ISA for developmental activities for polymetallic nodules. It also says that an area of 7,860 sqkm has been identified in the basin for ‘first generation mine site’ on the basis of surveys and analysis.

India has secured exploration rights in another area in the Indian Ocean, about a thousand km from Madagascar, at a point where three sub-sea ridges meet. This is a region where metallic sulphides have seeped through vents in the tectonic plates and spread themselves as ridges.

“The area has a lot of potential, and NIOT has begun preliminary surveys,” said Ramadass.

Published on August 02, 2019

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