Major nations are looking to the oceans for mineral and fuel reserves as reserves on land deplete fast. The recent discovery by ONGC of a large reserve of gas hydrates -a potential gamechanger in fossil fuels -off Andhra Pradesh has shown that the Indian exclusive economic zone may well be able to secure the nation's energy and other needs, but the technology for commercially exploiting these reserves is still several nautical miles away. In a chat with Meera Vankipuram, Satheesh C Shenoi, director of the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad, and also director (additional charge), National Institute of Ocean Technolog y (NIOT), Chennai, explains that the process of analysing data on mineral deposits in the Indian ocean has begun.

Does India have the technology and industrial base to extract and use reserves like the gas hydrates?

Right now, we don't have the technology to produce gas from hydrates.This technology is still being developed. Countries like Japan and India are in the process of developing the technology, such as a deep sea bore.The methane is in solidified form, and the technology to bring it to surface is still a decade or more away.

What about the mineral reserves on the Indian Ocean seabed?

There are minerals such as magnesium, zinc, copper, sulphides and cobalt in these reserves. While it is not economically viable in the next two decades to extract these minerals, as underground reserves get depleted, the ocean reserves will become very valuable in the future.

Has NIOT or other agencies mapped the exclusive economic zone of India? What are its features? What does it contain?

NIOT has carried out shallow wa ter survey of the east coast of India [between 10 m to 500 m water depth].Survey of other portions were carried out by National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) and National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). Assessment of EEZ resources requires comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date bathymetric maps. Such maps are used for assessment of mineral resources, mineral exploration and development, deployment of research instrumentation on or near seafloor, including submersible operations, geological hazard assessment, sub-sea pipeline or cable routing. So far an area of about 9,334 sqkm [approx] was surveyed using research ships of NIOT.

What has Indian research in Central Indian Ocean uncovered?

India explored the area allotted by International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Central Indian Ocean for polymetallic nodules that are rich in metals like cobalt, nickel and manganese.Analysis of close grid data is still in progress. India is in the process of obtaining allotment from ISA for polymetallic sulphides in the Indian Ocean region.

Environmentalists have raised con cerns about exploiting ocean mineral wealth saying that it will disturb the fragile ecosystem of the oceans. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes. But establishing technical viability precedes commercial availability. India is in the process of developing technology for demonstrative mining in Central Indian Ocean Basin for polymetallic nodules. ISA has issued strict guidelines even for demonstrative mining. Baseline environmental survey before mining and environmental impact survey after mining are a part of this.

You had recently said that NIOT will transfer some of your technologies and specifics of know-how to industry.What are some of these technologies?

Island and power plant desalination systems, ocean observation and tsunami detection systems, coastal and ocean drifters, autonomous profiling devices and remotely operated vehicles are a few of the technologies ready for transfer to the industry. The coastal drifter, tsunami detection and laboratory validation technologies are transferred to National Research Development Agency which markets indigenous technologies.

Can you describe the underwater remotely operated vehicle developed by NIOT? Why is it unique?

NIOT has developed a work-class, deep-water Remotely Operated Vehicle ROSUB 6000 with a depth rating of 6,000m. Very few countries in the world have such underwater vehicles. It has a host of scientific sensors, lights, cameras, sonar, sampling devices and robotics arms which make it useful for both scientific explorations and engineering interventions up to 6,000 m water depth. This is of immense importance in the area of ocean mineral exploration.

Based on the expertise developed in-house, NIOT made a Remotely Operated Vehicle for Polar Regions for the scientific explorations in Antarctica and Arctic regions. This has been successfully deployed in Antarctica in 2015. Polar ROV was dedicated to nation in March, 2015. Very few countries in the world have ROVs that can function in the polar regions and the addition of ice-coring system in our ROV makes this vehicle unique.