Deep Sea Mining and the Apollo Project

The Chinese are gathering resources we won't allow ourselves to.

Despite the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the frenzied bleating of the environmentalists, deep-water drilling will continue.  To name but one possibility, Petrobras, the oil giant owned by the Brazilian government, has found many million barrels of oil very deep under water and very deep under the sea bottom off the Brazilian coast.  The challenges of getting at the oil are great, but the rewards will be high if the Brazilian politicians will let the oil companies have a decent chance at a profit.

As usual with matters pertaining to energy, the issues are as much political as technical.  Petrobras is trying to raise money by selling stock to the public.  The Brazilian government is considering a law which will give Petrobras a monopoly on extracting deep oil.  Other oil firms are lobbying to be included in the expected profits, and so on.

The deep Brazilian oil fields may or may not be developed depending on how the politics unwinds.  Regardless of what happens in Brazil, there are shallower undersea discoveries in other parts of the world which are less challenging.  Oil demand is going up, other energy sources are inadequate, so deep oil will be pursued because the profits are simply too alluring to be ignored.

A Challenge to find a Solution

In "Don't Give up On Deep Sea Drilling," Fortune magazine argued:

We charge the oil companies billions for the right to drill. Why not invest some or all of this public money into creating a common global store of technology, processes and risk assessments needed to achieve a high level of environmental safety and then require that this knowledge be used by private industry? Like the moon program, it would require several years to do basic research, experimentation and invention. It would also require investments in engineering and scientific education to develop new skills. And, it will require a deliberate system of checks and balances to channel the narcissism, arrogance, short-termism and failure to fully appreciate consequences that have bedeviled human endeavors for thousands of years. Could a deep sea exploration program be a way of re-engaging a generation's imagination and commitment?

The difficulties with Americans doing this are that a) we don't have a charismatic leader like JFK to get the process rolling and b) we've lost our mojo because innovation is being regulated and taxed into oblivion.  Our funding and approval processes have become too political for engineers to get anything done.

One might think that all the hooraw about the Gulf oil spill would release some research funds, but in modern America, politics trumps fact-finding any day of the week regardless of the importance of the issue.  The New York Times reports:

A $500 million initiative for independent research promised by BP, which was to be awarded by an international panel of scientists, has become mired in a political fight over control[emphasis added]

... Governors of the Gulf States still wanted more local control of the money, and in mid-June the White House backed them up, announcing, "As a part of this initiative, BP will work with governors, and state and local environmental and health authorities to design the long-term monitoring program to assure the environmental and public health of the gulf region."

As natural processes continue to clean up the Gulf, the opportunities to find out how oil spills are handled naturally recede in a fog of political infighting over control of the money.

The mere existence of NASA's dying space shuttle stalled commercial development of space for years.  Nobody can agree on how to spend $500 million researching the Gulf oil spill.  Does anyone think that a deep-sea version of NASA would be any more effective given the observed political realities of our day and age?

The Chinese Solution

Not to worry; the goal-driven Chinese have taken up the challenge of going after deep-sea resources.  The New York Times reports:

When three Chinese scientists plunged to the bottom of the South China Sea in a tiny submarine early this summer, they did more than simply plant their nation's flag on the dark seabed.

The men, who descended more than two miles in a craft the size of a small truck, also signaled Beijing's intention to take the lead in exploring remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean floor, which are rich in oil, minerals and other resources that the Chinese would like to mine. And many of those resources happen to lie in areas where China has clashed repeatedly with its neighbors over territorial claims. [emphasis added]

We used to be more dominant beneath the surface than we are now.  In 1973, the CIA asked Howard Hughes to help them recover the remains of the K-129, a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that had sunk in 16,000 feet (4,900 meters) of water, well within this new Chinese submersible's design depth of 7,000 meters.  The Hughes organization put out a cover story that the ship was designed to harvest manganese nodules from the sea floor.  It's estimated that there are over a trillion dollars worth of high-grade minerals lying open on the deep sea bed, so this story was inherently plausible.

Instead of going after manganese, however, the ship recovered parts of the Soviet submarine.  Nearly forty years later, the Soviet sub languishes in a secret warehouse and the manganese nodules are still resting comfortably on the seafloor.

Hughes' ship, the Glomar Explorer, sat mothballed for most of that time and is now drilling for oil in Indonesia.  The fact that this successful high-tech project was tightly classified and wasn't subject to the usual government procurement mish-mash isn't talked about in polite company.

There's enough of our deep-water lead remaining that the Chinese sent their crew to the US for training on the Alvin, a famous submersible run by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, but at current rates, it won't be long before the Chinese deep water capability exceeds ours.

Being able to operate deep under water has a number of advantages.  One problem with drilling for oil from a surface platform is that there's no way to hide what you're doing.  It would be a lot harder to find and tax someone drilling for oil several miles below the surface, especially if it could be done from a submarine of any kind.

Having given up on their failed Communist ideology and switched to capitalism, the Chinese are looking for minerals all over the world to keep their economy humming.  What could be better than simply scooping resources such as manganese nodules off the sea bottom without having to bribe mineral-rich dictators or pay royalties to anyone?

We'll have to pay the Japanese to get into space, we'll have to buy oil and other minerals from the Chinese, but at least they'll be available, just as OPEC oil is available.  Available, but only at a price.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

the NYT says the Chinese are hard at it

Mining the Seafloor for Rare-Earth Minerals
China ended its embargo on rare-earth minerals late last month, but the hunt for other options continues.

For decades, entrepreneurs have tried to strike it rich by gathering up ugly potato-size rocks that carpet the global seabed. Known as manganese nodules, the rocks are plentiful in nickel, copper and cobalt, as well as manganese and other elements, but lie miles down in inky darkness. Building giant machines to vacuum them up, despite much study and investment, has never proved to be economic.

Now, the frustrated visionaries are talking excitedly about the possibility of belated success, and perhaps even profits.

The nodules turn out to contain so-called rare-earth minerals — elements that have wide commercial and military application but have hit a production roadblock. China, which controls some 95 percent of the world’s supply, had blocked shipments, sounding political alarms around the globe and a rush for alternatives. China ended its embargo late last month, but the hunt for other options continues.

So are seabed miners smiling at last?

“People are quite intrigued,” said James R. Hein, a geologist with the United State Geological Survey who specializes in seabed minerals. Depending on China’s behavior and the global reaction, he said, “rare earths may be the driving force in the near future.”

In October, Dr. Hein and five colleagues from Germany presented a paper on harvesting the nodules for their “rare and valuable metals.” They did so at the annual meeting of the Underwater Mining Institute, a professional group based at the University of Hawaii. The paper prompted visions of a fresh start.

“They really do add value,” Charles L. Morgan, chairman of the institute, said of the rare earths in an interview. The result, he added, is that the nodules have taken on a new luster. “People are starting to think, ‘Well, maybe these things aren’t so dumb after all.’ ”

Dr. Morgan said he was considering whether to start analyzing a collection he oversees of 5,000 nodule samples from around the globe so as to ascertain their rare-earth content. But he cautioned that the field of seabed mining has a history of ups and downs.

“This new wrinkle may take them over the edge to make them truly economic,” he said of the nodules. “But that remains to be seen.”

The elements known as rare earths number 17 in all and range from cerium and dysprosium to thulium and yttrium.

Their unique properties have resulted in their growing use in many technologies of modern life. Applications include magnets, lasers, fiber optics, computer disk drives, fluorescent lamps, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, computer memory chips, X-ray tubes, high-temperature superconductors and the liquid-crystal displays of televisions and computer monitors.

The United States Geological Survey calls the rare elements “essential for hundreds of applications” and likely candidates in the near future for an “expanding array” of high-tech products. Supply shortages that go on for a long time, the agency warns in a fact sheet, “would force significant changes in many technological aspects of American society.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called China’s export embargo a “wake-up call” for the world to find new resources.

Despite their name, most rare earths are not particularly rare. But their geochemical properties mean they seldom concentrate into economically exploitable ore pockets. During the last two decades, most production has shifted to China because of lower costs there and the country’s record of lax regulation of environmental hazards. (The processing of rare earths can create toxic byproducts.)

November 9, 2010 8:12 PM

Science News supports deep sea mining as a concept. It's been around for a long time, but prices are "skyrocketing." Opportunity knocking?

Rare earth elements plentiful in ocean sediments
The economically vital metals could be mined from the deep sea, Japanese geologists propose.

Mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean contains surprising concentrations of rare earth elements, 17 chemicals with exotic names like neodymium and europium that are critical to technologies ranging from cell phones and televisions to fluorescent light bulbs and wind turbines.

Hot plumes from hydrothermal vents pulled these materials out of seawater and deposited them on the seafloor, bit by bit, over tens of millions of years. One square patch of metal-rich mud 2.3 kilometers wide might contain enough rare earths to meet most of the global demand for a year, Japanese geologists report July 3 in Nature Geoscience.

“I believe that rare earth resources undersea are much more promising than on-land resources,” says Yasuhiro Kato, a geologist at the University of Tokyo who led the study.

More than 97 percent of the world’s rare earth elements come from mines in China, which has restricted exports in recent years. With prices skyrocketing, shortages are feared — especially in Japan, which lacks minable deposits of these elements.

Kato’s team analyzed seafloor cores taken from 78 sites throughout the Pacific Ocean. Near Hawaii and in the southeast Pacific, concentrations of rare earths were comparable to those found in clays mined in China. Some deposits contained twice as much heavy rare earths such as dysprosium, a component of magnets in hybrid car motors.

“The heavier rare earths tend to be ones that command greater price because of their scarcity,” says Alex King, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa.

Deep-sea mining is an old idea, but one that has yet to prove itself in the face of high costs and environmental concerns. Discovered decades ago, chunks of manganese on the ocean floor and deposits of metals such as zinc and copper in the Red Sea have proven impractical to mine.

“I don’t understand how this can be expected to be an economic way to recover rare earth,” says Daniel Cordier, a mineral commodity specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center in Reston, Va.

July 10, 2011 3:00 PM
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