The EU has launched a major project involving an international consortium of 14 industry and research organisations aimed at the sustainable harvesting of polymetallic nodules from the deep ocean.

Called Blue Nodules, the project will also involve Netherlands-based shipbuilder and offshore innovator Royal IHC and Belgian dredging and offshore giant DEME.

Part of the ‘Horizon 2020’ programme, the four-year project aims to accelerate innovations to harvest the nodules, which occur at water depths up to 6,000 m in most oceans around the world and contain large quantities of critical raw materials, such as nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese, as well as gallium and rare earth elements.

All are vital for Europe’s innovative technologies, such as manufacturing crucial alloys, for batteries for electric cars, photovoltaic systems, and devices for wind turbines.

Today and Wednesday, Blue Nodules co-ordinator IHC Marine Mining will kick off the project at its Kinderdijk premises.

In 2011, IHC and DEME formed a company, OceanflORE, specifically to advance deepsea mining techniques. Speaking exclusively to IHS Fairplay, IHC Marine Mining director Rodney Norman said, “OceanflORE is still active, with IHC focused on technology development and DEME on operations. In Blue Nodules, however, IHC and DEME are represented separately by their respective companies.

“IHC is taking the lead as we have the ambition of being the supplier of choice for the provision of deepsea mining equipment, vessels, and systems for the mining of polymetallic nodules from the target area, the Clarion Clipperton Zone [about 500 miles southeast of Hawaii towards Mexico].

“OceanflORE’s role will come to the fore as a contract mining enterprise, once legislation is in place via the International Seabed Authority and the technology is more mature,” Norman added.

“In Blue Nodules, IHC will develop the technology for the harvesting and in-situ processing of polymetallic nodules at water depths of 3,000 m to 6,000 m. The latter comprises sediment separation and crushing of nodules that are larger than a specific size, as this enables reliable and efficient vertical transport of the ore from the seafloor to the mining platform at the surface. Further, it comprises ore separation from the slurry and the handling of ore on the mining platform.

“The project will also include investigation into intrinsic safe working conditions, minimum environmental impact, compliance with the relevant policies and regulations, and an industrially viable polymetallic nodules business case,” he said.

Norman saw four major challenges connected with the project, “Determining the best technology for harvesting the nodules and developing a suitable mechanism that ensures high pick-up efficiency, while exerting minimum pressures on the environment, is a first challenge.

“Avoiding or mitigating plume formation and plume impact on the environment is a second challenge. Plume formation is expected at seafloor level during nodule harvesting and at the tailings discharge outlet,” Norman said.

“Minimising the seabed surface disturbance and separating the sediments from the nodules is a third challenge and the fourth is having insight into the physical properties of nodules in all deepsea mining phases. This is necessary in order to control the nodules’ transport from the seafloor to the mining platform, and to guarantee high-quality ore for on-shore processing.

“The long-term benefit to IHC,” Norman concluded, “is the supply of equipment and vessels for the mining of polymetallic nodules, with the resultant increase in our product and services portfolio.”

For DEME, Blue Nodules is the third EU initiative in which the group has participated, the other two being MIDAS (Managing Impacts of Deep Sea Resource Exploitation) and Blue Mining (Developing Discovery and Assessment Technology for Deep Sea Resources & Developing the Vertical Transport System).

DEME Blue Nodules project manager Kris Van Nijen agreed with Norman’s evaluation.

“OceanflORE is a contracting company, whilst we are today in an R&D phase. This project is aimed at developing technologies that will be required to eventually harvest these polymetallic nodules,” he told IHS Fairplay.

Two DEME companies are involved in this consortium: Dredging International, which will provide specific offshore operational expertise, and Global Sea Mineral Resources [GSR] – a concession holder for polymetallic nodules in international waters – which will provide information on the deposit, the environment, and the challenges that need to be overcome.”

In January 2013, GSR signed a 15-year contract with the International Seabed Authority for the prospecting and exploration of polymetallic nodules that gave the company exclusive rights for exploration over 76,728 km2 of seabed in the eastern part of the central Pacific Ocean.

Regarding the operational challenges DEME will face, Van Nijen commented, “Working at a depth of 4,000 m on a day-to-day basis provides sufficient challenges by itself. All equipment needs to be tested in hyperbaric chambers to withstand the enormous pressures. Reducing energy consumption and transport, improving production efficiency and reducing environmental impacts are the top three challenges that have been identified.

 “We are a nearshore and offshore marine contractor and we have the intention to purposely build vessels to harvest these polymetallic nodules once all challenges are overcome.”

The other 12 industry and research partners are: Continental AG (UK & Hungary); IHC MTI (Netherlands); De Regt Marine Cables (Netherlands); Uniresearch (Netherlands); Seascape Consultants (UK); GSR (Belgium); Bureau Veritas (France); NIOZ (Netherlands); RWTH (Germany); NTNU (Norway); Aarhus University (Denmark); and UPC (Spain).

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