Deep Sea Mining: Could this be the New Gold Rush?

If you’re not aware of it, the mining industry is seemingly facing a revolution at the moment – and we’re not talking about asteroid mining either – this is something much less sci-fi unfortunately, but revolutionary nonetheless…

According to The Japan Times, the Japanese government has managed to successfully mine gold, zinc and a number of other minerals from deep-water just off the coast of Okinawa.

Although we still don’t know much about the scale of the operation, this could potentially be one of the first ventures in what may become a huge deep-ocean mining industry in just a couple of years.

From a CIA Cover-up to Reality

The history of deep sea mining is actually pretty long and interesting. For example, in 1974, a huge ship sailed in the waters near Hawaii, the vessel, which was built by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes was supposed to start mining mineral deposits in just a few months.

That was the official story anyway… The truth was actually much more interesting in this case.

According to recently published CIA documents, this was nothing more than a cover-up story for a secret CIA operation to salvage a Russian nuclear submarine. The Cold War was still going on, so these stories are not so surprising in retrospective.

And now, more than 40 years later, we are finally ready to start deep sea mining…. This time for real.

How Much Minerals Are Down There?

We’re currently depleting many of land-based stores of minerals, and although deep sea mining is quite risky, it’s still much a likelier source of minerals than the aforementioned asteroids. We know that these underwater deposits are rich in cobalt, manganese and other resources we need for electronics, medical machines and green technology.

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Of course, mining for precious metals and various other valuable minerals won’t be an easy task. According to a 2007 study sponsored by the California Energy Commission, most of these materials can be found anywhere between a couple of hundred feet and 20,000 feet down.

So how much of this stuff is down there? Estimations vary significantly, but we’re definitely sure that the seafloor is filled with valuable minerals. For instance, back in 1960s, John l. Mero prophesied that there are almost limitless amounts of rare elements. His book, The Mineral Resources of the Sea forecasted a mining boom that enrich nations all across the world inspire new technological advancements.

Moreover, according to the National Ocean Service, experts estimate that there’s enough gold on the seafloor that each person on the planet could have roughly 9 pounds of the precious metal. And this amounts to around 150 trillion dollars or 21k per person on Earth.

The Potential Problems With Deep Sea Mining

Just like the Japanese government, we would have to send remotely operated vehicles down to scrape up the seafloor crust. The problem with this process is that it would be slow, because these vehicles cannot bring up much weight.

On the other hand, mining could be done in a different way – a faster one at that – the ROV’s could bring in the minerals in a ship or a floating platform above the site. However, the mining speed is not the only problem we’re facing here…

The biggest problem with deep sea mining is that it can potentially put lives of various creatures in peril. Mining the mineral-rich vents involves grinding sea-bottom rocks into a slurry and sucking the materials up to ships at the surface using giant machines. And no matter what are you mining, you’re wiping out a majority of animals that live there.

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The International Seabed Authority has granted 25 contracts so far, to various countries to explore for valuable minerals. Of course, commercial mining operations are still not under way simply because the ISA is still trying to figure out how to ensure that deep sea mining done completely safely. The company is committed to figure the rules and regulations by the end of the decade.

This means we could have mining companies mining the sea around 2025. Basically, this means that we’ll have to look for precious metals old-fashion way for at least a couple of more years.

Final Thoughts

The scientific community is still trying to figure out what’s the safest way to exploit the deep see. You see, one of the most unique and important eco-systems on our planet is at stake – active vents near the Okinawa coast that contain these precious minerals cover around 34 square miles, which means they are very rare.

Since they are so small, why are they so important? For starters, these vents are very under-studied, so we’re not quite sure what animals will be endangered by mining companies. Yet, animals discovered near these vents have yield amazing discoveries, including an organism that contains a rare compound, which could help us treat Alzheimer’s disease, according to Wired.

Nonetheless, by 2050, we’re going to have a couple of billion people on Earth, and all of them will have ACs, television sets and mobile phones. The materials for these products are going to have to come from someplace, and it seems that it will come from the seafloor… Just what amounts of minerals can be extracted from it, we still don’t know.