On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.
“In the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be quite easy to exploit”
Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
There really should be a rule about starting any more deep-sea mining articles with that Jules Verne quote. Something like 50% of my own articles on the topic begin with that aging line from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There are mines of gold in the deep sea, but, as it turns out, they are not quite so easy to exploit.
Three decades ago, the deep-sea mining industry coalesced around a hydrothermal vent prospect in Papua New Guinea. At the time one of the largest known seafloor massive sulfides, its proximity to shore, as well as its location within the territorial seas of a single nation, made it the ideal spot to launch the first deep-sea mining operation. A decade later the first mining tools touched down on the seafloor.
This is not that story. The rise and fall and fall and rise and fall and rise of deep-sea mining is a tale almost a century old (and one which we have blogged about quite a bit). Like the tide itself, the industry is entirely dependent on the ebb and flow of commodities prices. When copper and gold are down, exploiting the seafloor is prohibitively expensive. When the price eventually rises, the upfront cost and long tail of mobilization means that initial profit projections are woefully obsolete by the time production begins. The Persistent Technology movement managed to handily tank the commodities market for most of the 20’s.
Of course, while the underlying resource proved to be too risky in a volatile commodities market, the technology developed for those first mines went on to be enormously profitable in other sub-sea ventures. Biomining and Rare-Earth Element Shunting wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for these early pioneers. Nor, for that matter, would some non-exploitive industries, like deep aquaculture and thermogradient energy production. (more…)