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Mining 20,000 leagues under the sea

Monday, September 08, 2014 - 02:31

Until now, it's been in the realm of science fiction, but seafloor mining could soon become a reality. Ivor Bennett looks at the giant machines Canadian company Nautilus Minerals hopes to use to harvest copper, gold and other precious metals from 1600 metres below to ocean surface.

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It's a glimpse of the treasures beneath. These pictures were taken on the ocean floor - a volcanic landscape containing gold, silver and other precious metals in unparalleled quantities. SOUNDBITE (English) MIKE JOHNSTON, CEO, NAUTILUS MINERALS, SAYING: "Last year the average grade of a copper mine on land was about 0.57 percent copper. Our deposits have a grade of about 8 percent copper. Those are the sorts of grades that people mined during the Bronze Age when man first started to mine copper." Mike Johnston is CEO of Nautilus Minerals. The company is aiming to become the first in the world to mine the ocean floor. SOUNDBITE (English) MIKE JOHNSTON, CEO, NAUTILUS MINERALS, SAYING: "The reason for why mining hasn't happened on the sea floor yet is largely around people's perceptions and paradigms. All this technology that we're using is basically pre-existing technology. We're just putting it all back together in slightly different configurations." The machines are based on those built for oil and gas - and have a combined weight of 760 tonnes. They'll be sent to depths of 1600 metres - flattening, shattering and scooping up the minerals before pumping them back up to the surface. SOUNDBITE (English) IVOR BENNETT, REUTERS REPORTER, SAYING: "So now we're in the control room and this is where the pilot will sit. As you can see it looks a little like the Starship enterprise. He'll be able to see what's going on via camera on the machines themselves - that's on this screen here. But once the mining actually starts they won't be that useful because of all the dust that is kicked up by the machines so most of the navigation will be done be sonar, over on this screen here." The first prospective site is in the Bismark Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The project is expected to produce 1 million tonnes a year, but costing less than half a billion dollars. A similar sized mine on land would cost 6 times that. SOUNDBITE (English) MIKE JOHNSTON, CEO, NAUTILUS MINERALS, SAYING: "Capital intensity is much lower in the ocean and the reason for that is that you can pick the machines up and move them to another site. So it's not all fixed in one place." The company's identified a number of other sites across the Pacific. But there is a growing environmental lobby who fear it'll damage marine life. A recent ownership dispute with the Papua New Guinea government had also threatened to derail the project but the company is confident it will start mining within 4 years. All they need now is a ship - harder than it sounds when it has to carry cargo like this.

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Mining 20,000 leagues under the sea

Monday, September 08, 2014 - 02:31