Belgian fast-moving 'caterpillar' in deep sea copper, cobalt race

LONDON (Reuters) - Belgian group DEME and Canada’s DeepGreen are carrying out tests and research to collect nodules containing copper, cobalt and other minerals from the ocean floor, as a race to mine the depths gathers pace.

Deep sea mining is often dismissed as unaffordable and environmentally hazardous because of the potential risk to species science has barely begun to understand.

But U.N. talks in Jamaica, which began on Monday, are working out regulations on mining in international waters, which may appeal to companies struggling to find new reserves on land and to deal with governments and communities.

DEME unit Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), is testing nodule collector Patania II, named after the world’s fastest caterpillar.

The test, in a part of the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which spans 4.5 million square km (1.7 million square miles) between Hawaii and Mexico, follows the trial of Patania I in 2017, which crawled along the ocean bed at a depth of 4,500 meters.

Patania II will collect nodules as well as traverse the seabed. A third trial, involving Patania III, expected in 2023, will bring nodules to the surface.

China is the leading holder of international deep sea exploration licenses, but GSR says decades of dredging and building offshore windfarms that sit on the ocean floor have placed the company at the front of the technological race.

Kris van Nijen, general manager of GSR, told Reuters the firm drew on DEME’s “140 years of world-leading expertise in marine engineering and environmental remediation”.

GSR has company. Leading shipper Maersk is “among the front-runners offering marine services for deep sea mineral recovery research,” it said in an email.

Its unit Maersk Supply Service is providing vessels for DeepGreen’s research voyages in the Clarion Clipperton Zone. So far it has completed three and plans another three this year.

The Kingston talks, meanwhile, are working on rules for international waters.

So far the body, which will host discussions until March 15 and then throughout July, has regulated on exploration, not exploitation.

Campaigners want restrictions or a ban on mining. Non-governmental organization Pew has said half of all international mining areas should be declared no-mining zones.

In national waters, Canadian-listed Nautilus Minerals has sought to go beyond the exploration stage. It has tried to mine underwater mounds off Papua New Guinea, for copper, gold and silver, but it been slowed by funding issues and local opposition. GSR and DeepGreen are focused on nodules, rather than mounds, which they say can be collected with minimal disturbance and contain minerals including nickel, manganese, copper, zinc and cobalt. Cobalt and copper are particularly in demand for electric vehicles.

Editing by Jason Neely