LONDON, Aug. 6, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Stronger commodity prices and a new United Nations regulatory framework have resulted in an increased enthusiasm for undersea mining over the past year. If proven feasible, undersea mining has the potential to completely transform the base metal market – especially for battery metals nickel and cobalt, which both have lingering supply concerns. However, many operational and processing challenges remain before undersea mining can begin.
Last week, CRU was invited to give an independent long-term market outlook for copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese at the 25th session of the United Nations International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. These elements are the most common constituents of polymetallic nodules which make up the largest and most feasible undersea deposits currently being explored. This report focuses on polymetallic nodule mining as it is currently believed to be the most feasible form of undersea mining in development.
Undersea mining drifts in and out of the spotlight
Despite only achieving large-scale prominence in the past decade, the concept of undersea mining has been explored for nearly half a century. Several nations funded exploration and research vessels in the 1970s and 1980s for the purpose of finding undersea deposits, as well as testing the feasibility of undersea mining. In one particularly famous case, the mission had very ulterior motives. The Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea drillship platform built in the early-1970s, was commissioned by Marine Development Inc with the declared purpose of extracting manganese nodules form the ocean floor. However, a later public disclosure revealed that the undersea mining story had been a cover for so-called "Project Azorian", a CIA project tasked with the recovery of a sunk Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Spiralling research and development costs, combined with a general downturn in commodity prices, put a halt to most undersea mining funding in the 1980s. However, increased concerns around the long-term availability of technology metals – as well as the development of a new regulatory framework for undersea mining – has caused a revival of interest in the nascent sector in the past decade.
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