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Manganese nodules, again?

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1 Author(s)
Morgan, C.L. ; Underwater Min. Inst., USA

Since their initial discovery by the English Challenger expedition (1872-1876), deep seabed manganese nodules have attracted sporadic but intense scientific and economic attention, sometimes related to their interesting geological properties, such as their apparent persistence on sediments much younger than their estimated geological age, and sometimes related to their potential economic value as sources of important industrial metals, including manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and others. The latter aspect of these deposits is the focus in this paper. John Mero, in his book Mineral Resources of the Sea (Elsevier Oceanography Series, 1965), predicted huge resources of nodules containing high concentrations of these metals lying on the surface of the deep seabed (4,000 5,000 m water depth). Based partially on Mero's predictions, and also on the consistent rates of increase in metal market prices between 1926 and 1970 (e.g. for nickel, $41 per metric ton (t) per year, constant 1998 US dollars), several private industrial and government-sponsored efforts to develop these resources were undertaken in the 1970s - 1990s. Many hundreds of millions of dollars (1970s US dollars) were committed by several parties to development ventures. These efforts successfully tested several small-scale mining systems in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ; defined as 0° 20° N, 110° 160° W) of the northeastern tropical Pacific. These system tests evaluated the performance of several towed and self- propelled devices. Hundreds of tons of manganese nodules were recovered in these tests. These early ventures resulted in the establishment of exploration Contracts between the International Seabed Authority (the ISA; authorized under the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty) and government-sponsored entities, the "Pioneer Investors," from (1) China, (2) Russia, (3) Japan, (4) South Korea, (5) France, (6) India, and (7) a consortium (InterOceanMetal, IOM) represen- ing Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation and Slovakia. Between 1976 and 1986 the market value of nickel plunged from $14,200/t to $5,770/t (1998 constant US dollars), shattering the economic models and business plans for the development of these seabed resources. No additional investors joined these seven Pioneers, who have maintained their ISA claims since this time but did not commit to aggressive development programs. In the fall of 2009 the ISA published a comprehensive resource assessment of the manganese nodule resources found in the CCZ (www.isa.org.im/files/documents/EN/Pubs/GeoMod-web.pdf). This work relied on all available published resource data, as well as proprietary data contributed by the Pioneer Investors, more than 8,000 sampled stations within the region. It concludes that the CCZ may host more than 27 billion metric tons of manganese nodules, possibly containing 7 billion metric tons of manganese, 340 million metric tons (Mt) of nickel, 290 Mt of copper, and 58 Mt of cobalt. John Mero may have been overly optimistic in his timing, but his prediction of huge resources is well supported by this study. The fifteen-year Contracts for the seven Pioneer Investors were all executed in 2001 and 2002 and will all expire on or before March 24, 2017. In addition, on July 19, 2006 the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) of the Federal Republic of Germany signed a contract with the ISA to become the eighth Contractor working on the exploration of manganese nodule resources on the international seabed. At this time (August 2011), the ISA has approved two additional applications submitted in 2008 by Nauru Ocean Resources, Inc. and Tonga Offshore Mining Ltd. While these new entries don't constitute a gold rush, they do suggest that there are new interests that believe these resources are worth the $250,000 license fee and due diligence, requiring many millions of dollars of oceanographic field work and eng

Published in:

OCEANS 2011

Date of Conference:

19-22 Sept. 2011