Environment: Deep-sea mining, Poly metallic nodules, Central Indian Ocean Basin, Economic viability, Policy Challenges

Headline : Why is India pulled to deep-sea mining?

Details :

In News:
  • India’s ambitious ‘Deep Ocean Mission’ (DOM), the Rs 8,000-crore plan to explore deep ocean minerals, is all set to be launched this year.
Mining the deep ocean for polymetallic nodules:
  • One of the main aims of the mission is to explore and extract polymetallic nodules.
  • These are small potato-like rounded accretions composed of minerals such as manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper and iron hydroxide.
  • They lie scattered on the Indian Ocean floor at depths of about 6,000 m and the size can vary from a few millimetres to centimetres.
  • These metals can be extracted and used in electronic devices, smartphones, batteries and even for solar panels.
India will mine in the Central Indian Ocean Basin:
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which governs non-living resources of the seabed of international waters, allots the ‘area’ for deep-sea mining.
    • It is an autonomous international organisation established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.
  • India was the first country to receive the status of a ‘Pioneer Investor ‘ in 1987 and was given an area of about 1.5 lakh sq km in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) for nodule exploration.
Potential polymetallic nodules in the basin:
  • In 2002, India signed a contract with the ISA and after complete resource analysis of the seabed 50% was surrendered and the country retained an area of 75,000 sq km.
  • As per the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the estimated polymetallic nodule resource potential in this area is 380 million tonnes (MT), containing 4.7 MT of nickel, 4.29 MT of copper, 0.55 MT of cobalt and 92.59 MT of manganese.
  • First Generation Mine-site: Further studies have helped narrow the mining area to 18,000 sq km which will be the ‘First Generation Mine-site’.
India is current testing technologies to extract:
  • India’s mining site is at about a depth of 5,500 metres, where there is a high pressure and extremely low temperature.
  • Using Remotely Operated Vehicle and In-situ Soil Tester in the depth of 6,000 metres, India is gaining a thorough understanding of the mining area at the CIOB.
  • Newly developed mining machines will be tested this year at 6000 metres depth.
  • More tests are being conducted to understand how to bring the nodules up to the surface.
Other countries interested in mining the deep sea:
  • Apart from the CIOB, polymetallic nodules have been identified from the Central Pacific Ocean. It is known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
  • According to the ISA’s website, it has entered into 15-year contracts for exploration for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed with 29 contractors.
  • Later it was extended for five more years till 2022.
  • China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and also some small islands such as the Cook Islands, Kiribati have joined the race for deep sea mining.
  • Most of the countries have tested their technologies in shallow waters and are yet to start deep-sea extraction.
Potential environmental impact of deep-sea mining:
  • The deep sea’s biodiversity and ecology remain poorly understood, making it difficult to assess the environmental impact and frame adequate guidelines.
  • According to the IUCN, these deep remote locations can be home to unique species that have adapted themselves to conditions such as poor oxygen and sunlight, high pressure and extremely low temperatures.
  • Mining expeditions can make them go extinct.
  • Environmentalists are also worried about the sediment plumes that will be generated as the suspended particles can rise to the surface harming the filter feeders in the upper ocean layers.
  • Additional concerns have been raised about the noise and light pollution from the mining vehicles and oil spills from the operating vessels.
Economic viability of deep sea mining:
  • The latest estimate from the ISA says it will be commercially viable only if about three million tonnes are mined per year.
  • More studies are being carried out to understand how the technology can be scaled up and used efficiently.
Section : Science & Tech