Tag Archives: Manganese nodule

How rich are deep-sea resources?

My first task as a Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the British Open University, from 1971 onward, was to write teaching materials about the economics, formation and geological setting of metal resources. Much of the content was about the full range of ‘conventional’ metal ores, but something being publicised as having huge potential intrigued me. This concerned manganese-rich nodules (with the aesthetic appeal of unwashed potatoes) and crusts found sitting on top of sediments of the abyssal ocean floor, at depths between 3 to 5 kilometres.  While manganese is by no means a rare element and occurs in vast ore reserves on the continents, the nodules contain unusually high concentrations of other, more valuable metals, such as copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt and lead. Some contained more than 3% of Cu, Ni and Co combined, above the ‘grades’ of economic deposits of ores of the individual metals on land. This was the source of their potential: simple, albeit very deep dredging of the nodules would provide multi-metal ore of very high profitability. Moreover, the nodules are in truly vast tonnages (about 10 kg m-2) and continually grow by precipitation from seawater in the underlying sediments at a few millimetres per million years – they are renewable resources.

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the...

Manganese nodules from the Pacific abyssal plains. (credit: Wikipedia)

A variety of reasons, not the least of which was the vexatious question of ownership of sea-floor resources far from land, have meant that commercial operations have yet to begin. However, spiralling prices for metals on the world market together with depletion of on-shore, high-grade reserves are beginning to make the opportunity of nodule mining irresistible. Fifteen companies, with licence areas issued by the intergovernmental  International Seabed Authority of around 75 000 km2 each, are now engaged in economic assessment of one of the most remote swathes of the Pacific abyssal plains (Peacock, T. & Alford M.H. 2018. Is deep-sea mining worth it? Scientific American, v. 318(5) (May 2018 issue), p. 63-67). There are several controversial issues surrounding deep-sea mining. First, dredging, like beam trawling disturbs and destroys ocean-floor ecosystems and turns bottom water turbid, the very fine grain size of sediments resulting in settling being very slow ( about 1 mm s-1). Second, preliminary ore processing on board dredging vessels results in plumes of turbid and metal-rich slurry in the wakes, threatening surface and mid-water ecosystems. Such plumes will rapidly spread far from operational areas in surface current systems, eventually to smother pristine areas of ocean floor. Re-examination of areas of experimental dredging from 30 years ago have revealed that they are still sterile of lifeforms larger than 50 micrometres. Added to these effects, onshore processing will produce large amounts of waste – about 75% of the volume of dredged nodules. Conventional mines eventually backfill their excavations, but with nodule mining disposal would be an environmental nightmare.

Japanese sea-floor mining machine. (credit: Japan Times)

Economically, it seems that nodule dredging is potentially highly profitable. To break even requires lifting about a million metric tons, which would yield of the order of 37 000 t of Ni, 32 000 t of Cu, 6000 t of Co and 750 000 t manganese. If all 15 companies begin extraction, production at these levels will have a downward effect on world metal prices, tending to undercut production from conventional mines. One little-considered issue is that the ‘blend’ of metals from nodules will not match the industrial demand for each of them, further destabilising markets. Added to mining of the abyssal plains, plans are well advanced for multi-metal mining of massive sulfide deposits forming at hydrothermal vents or ‘black smokers’ along mid-ocean ridge systems, in which gold figures strongly. Only a few Pacific island states have resisted the ‘promise’ of such operations. Japanese companies are already mining the seabed off Okinawa within their own offshore waters and seemingly are producing zinc equivalent to the country’s annual consumption as well as gold, copper and lead.

Resource snippets

Wasted natural gas

Much attention has centred on fracking shales to release otherwise locked-in gas, while production of liquid petroleum by the same kind of process is also increasing with little publicity, especially in the US. From a purely economic standpoint wells that yield oil and gas from fractured shale might seem to be quite a boon. Well, they probably are, if the gas can be sold. One of the biggest shale-oil targets is the Late Devonian to Early Carboniferous Bakken Shale in the Williston Basin that stretches across 360 thousand km2‑ beneath parts of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana in the US and Saskatchewan in Canada. This shale is the source rock for most of the conventional oil production from the Williston basin since the 1940s. At the start of the 21st century direct production of oil from the Bakken began in North Dakota, unleashing a major drilling boom and a ten-fold increase in land-leases for production. The state is now the second largest US oil producer after Alaska warranting a major feature National Geographic. Trouble is North Dakota is not well served by pipelines of any kind and oil is shipped by rail, much as it was in the early days of the US oil industry.

Flame at PTT (ปตท.) (Map Ta Phut, Rayong, Thai...

Typical natural gas flare with black-carbon plume (credit: Wikipedia)

The natural gas released by fracking is simply wasted, partly by flaring at the wellhead but an unknown volume of pure methane is simply vented to the atmosphere. At rough 25 times the greenhouse warming capacity of CO2 the perverted economics of waste methane is, unsurprisingly, becoming scandalous and increasingly dangerous. Such is the magnitude of shale-gas production in the US the price of natural gas has fallen dramatically so that from the Williston Basin simply carries no profit and therefore has nowhere to go except up in flames or directly to the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency apparently can do little to halt the venting. British onshore source rocks, such as the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Shale,  which has a hydrocarbon content up to 70% and is regarded as the most important rock in Europe being the source for much of the petroleum beneath the North Sea and other oil provinces, are likely targets for fracking now the UK government has given the go-ahead in a new ‘dash for gas’. Chances are it may become a dash for onshore shale-oil .

Manganese nodules finally tagged for production

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the...

Manganese nodules taken from the bottom of the Pacific. (credit: Wikipedia)

Almost 40 years ago my desk was almost buried under tomes of information about dull black nodules looking like blighted potatoes as I worked on the now abandoned Level-2 Open University course on The Earth’s Physical Resources. Made mainly out of manganese and iron minerals they also contain ore-grade amounts of nickel, copper and cobalt together with other metals. Were they beneath the crust they would be mined eagerly, but such manganese nodules litter vast areas at the surface of the oceans’ abyssal plains. Such was their potential that around half a billion dollars was spent on oceanographic and geochemical surveys to map the richest nodule fields. Part of the attraction at a time when the non-renewable nature of conventional metal deposits was touted as a threat to civilisation as we know it, as in The Limits to Growth, was that the nodules were zoned and clearly growing: they appear to be renewable metal resources.

Mining them is likely to be hugely costly: they will have to be dredged or sucked-up from the deep ocean basins; intricate metallurgical methods are needed to separate and smelt the paying metals and the risks of deep-sea pollution are obvious. As with shale gas, the UK Tory premier David Cameron has leapt onto Lockheed Martin UK’s announcement that it is finally profitable to get at the nodules, in the manner of the proverbial ‘rat up a drainpipe’. Cameron believes that the venture to harvest one of the most metalliferous patches on the east Pacific floor off Mexico may rake the UK’s economic potatoes out of the fire to the tune of US$60 billion over the next 30 years. Lockheed Martin is an appropriate leader in this scramble having designed some of the equipment aboard a ship financed by Howard Hughes, the 50 thousand tonne Glomar Explorer. A curious vessel, the Glomar Explorer was widely publicised in the mid-70s as the flagship for a manganese nodule pilot project. In fact it was built to snaffle a Soviet submarine (K-129) and its contents of codebooks, technical equipment and nuclear missiles that sank to the abyssal plains in the Pacific about 2500 km to the north-west of Hawaii. It did grapple the submarine, some cryptographic equipment, a couple of nuclear tipped torpedoes and six of the dead crew members. It is still operational, but as an ultra-deep water drill rig.

We will have to wait to see if nodule mining is a ‘go-er’, and very little information has emerged about methodology. The target metal is probably nickel with its importance in rechargeable batteries, plus rare-earth metals that are in notoriously short supply. Whether or not raking, dredging or sucking-up the nodules will have insupportable environmental impact depends on the amount of on-board processing; the nodules themselves are pretty much insoluble. Extracting and separating the metals will probably involve some kind of solution chemistry rather than the beneficiation common in most on-shore metal mines. Such hydrometallurgy has considerable potential for pollution, unless the raw nodules are shipped to shoreline facilities, at a hefty cost. One thing occurred to me while writing about manganese nodules as a major resource was that their blends of metals would not match the proportions actually required in commerce. On a grand scale their exploitation could well play havoc with currently booming metal prices and drive on-shore mining to the wall. But, to be frank, I think this is a bit of tropical sea-bed bubble fraught with legal tangles connected with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.