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Businesses Robotics Technology

The Next Gold Rush Will Be 5,000 Feet Under the Sea, With Robot Drones (vice.com) 129

merbs writes: In Papua New Guinea, one well-financed, first-mover company is about to pioneer deep sea mining. And that will mean dispatching a fleet of giant remote-operated robotic miners 5,000 feet below the surface to harvest the riches scattered across ocean floor. These mammoth underwater vehicles look like they've been hauled off the set of a sci-fi film—think Avatar meets The Abyss. And they'll be dredging up copper, gold, and other valuable minerals, far beneath the gaze of human eyes.
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The Next Gold Rush Will Be 5,000 Feet Under the Sea, With Robot Drones

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  • That will go well (Score:5, Insightful)

    by retroworks ( 652802 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:09PM (#50952359) Homepage Journal
    Metal mining is the #1, #2 AND #3 most polluting industry. 14/15 largest superfund sites, etc. Primary barrier to cyanide treatment and tailing ponds is the property value of abutting land. This is what has driven mining out west in the USA, to rain forests, and now to the ocean, where no on can hear you scream.
    • Re:That will go well (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:31PM (#50952451) Homepage
      Normal gold mining is known for using vile chemicals (mercury, cyanide) to seperate out small percentages (1%) of gold from non-gold. Deep sea gold mining avoids this problem. They go to hot vents where the gold is much higher percentages. So they don;t use mercury or cyanide.

      They do however involve large transportation of materials up from the sea bed, most of which is released to float down.

      The risks are radically different than land based mining and relatively unknown.

      But I am a firm believer in diversification of risk. I'd rather have some coal and some nuclear, rather than just one, as the risks are different.

      Similarly, undersea gold mining is worth a pilot project or two to see how it affects the local ecology.

      • Very nice... well thought out and posted.
      • This is one of those situations where I would have liked to believe in a god - any god - so I could swear with conviction. I mean, will we ever actually learn from the mistakes of our ever more harmful mistakes? Mining on dry land is bad enough, but it is at least to some extent possible to contain the pollution locally, whereas whatever is released into the open ocean ends up being a global problem, and one that is very, very hard to clean up. We can just about contemplate cleaning the polluted soil around

      • by aliquis ( 678370 )

        But I am a firm believer in diversification of risk. I'd rather have some coal and some nuclear, rather than just one, as the risks are different.

        The thing with gold however is that we don't even needs it!

        There's no real reason to collect it except it takes resources to do so so that makes it valuable..

        Destroy nature and waste work on getting something you'll just store away for no other purpose? Make sense!

        • But I am a firm believer in diversification of risk. I'd rather have some coal and some nuclear, rather than just one, as the risks are different.

          The thing with gold however is that we don't even needs it!

          There's no real reason to collect it except it takes resources to do so so that makes it valuable..

          Destroy nature and waste work on getting something you'll just store away for no other purpose? Make sense!

          We use gold in electronics, medicine, etc. See here [geology.com]. Sure, we don't "need" a computer or a smartphone, but ...

          • by aliquis ( 678370 )

            We use gold in electronics, medicine, etc. See here. Sure, we don't "need" a computer or a smartphone, but ...

            "Jewelry:
            About 78% of gold consumed each year is made into jewelry. Jewelry is the most common way gold reaches consumers, and has been a primary use for the metal in various cultures. Because of its beautiful and durable properties, gold jewelry is an adornment that is both ethereal and revered. Especially in India, adorning the body with gold is a way to attract wealth and blessings."
            http://www.sbcgold.com/blog/to... [sbcgold.com]

            Also you can recycle gold so there's no reason to mine it multiple km down into the sea an

            • Not really - the amount of gold in a cell phone is too little to recycle, but a billion phones adds up to a significant amount that, unlike jewelry, is permanently taken out of circulation.
      • ... undersea gold mining is worth a pilot project or two to see how it affects the local ecology.

        I laugh at your assumption that anyone involved in making money from this venture gives a flying fuck about the local ecology, as if an oil tycoon is suddenly is going to develop a conscience about the environment and stop pumping.

        You've underestimated the power of greed here. A lot.

        • You've underestimated the power of greed here. A lot.

          Bring on the pirate drones, matey! Why mine it when you can just steal it?

    • by ls671 ( 1122017 )

      Hmmm... about humans are the most polluting species?

    • Re:That will go well (Score:5, Informative)

      by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @10:08PM (#50952597)

      Hasn't offshore gold dredging been done for years in Alaska? The environmental effects should be well known by now.

      • Hasn't offshore gold dredging been done for years in Alaska? The environmental effects should be well known by now.

        Yes, there is even a TV show about it. [wikipedia.org] However, the miners in Alaska are generally poorly funded and only mine in shallow water. Someone sinking millions on dollars into it would be completely different.

    • They are probably going to harvest deep sea metal nodules. This was a big thing back in the 70's but I don't think it ever got past the research stage. If all they are doing is harvesting the potato sized nodules from the surface of the sea floor, it may not be that big of an environmental disaster.

      This article is incredibly short on details, but it's inconceivable that they would try to smelt the ore on the ocean floor. How they process the ore once on land is another matter, but we're already doing this
    • Metal mining is the #1, #2 AND #3 most polluting industry.

      I'm a conservative Christian (currently) registered Republican and my first thought was this can't possibly be safe for the environment.

    • Not even slightly. Have a look at the production cost of the pilbara mines in NW Australia. Those mines have existing port infrastructure and rail infrastructure allowing them to export to China and Japan. PNG would have to compete against the Australian cost base and it stands zero chance of doing that with existing tech. Doing it with this tech is completely impossible.

    • by Tim the Gecko ( 745081 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:35PM (#50952469)
      When I was a kid I read about manganese nodule mining on the sea floor. It later turned out that it was Project Azorian [wikipedia.org], where the nodules were a cover story for a CIA-funded attempt to lift a Soviet sub from the sea floor.
      • My first think too.

        Well, is it another soviet sub or an alien base this time?

      • Not only that, the Titanic discovery was also a cover for the Navy investigating their own submarines.
        http://news.nationalgeographic... [nationalgeographic.com]

      • I remember it too, and read the national geographic expose on the both the fake story and the real one.

        The thing is, it was a great cover story because it was possible. The only reason it didn't really happen was the cost to extract wasn't worth it. Drones change that, it might be possible to pull all those minerals off the bottom if we have drones, the cost thing that killed the original was all the manpower and special submarines that would be needed.

        If you have drones doing the mining and only need surfa

      • Yes, I immediately thought of the Glomar Explorer and Howard Hughes when I read the title.
      • That the CIA sub-recovering cover story is real doesn't actually mean that "abyssal plain nodules" are unreal. The first discoveries of them happened back in the 1880s (from the British research vessel "Challenger" which gave it's name to the "Challenger Deep", and possibly some spaceships, and essentially invented the whole subject of oceanography ; in fact, it's "five year mission to explore ..." sounds familiar too), and the results - more like lists of questions - were published mostly over a century ag
  • Impressive Monsters (Score:4, Informative)

    by no-body ( 127863 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:15PM (#50952393)
    Indeed:

    http://www.animals-zone.com/7-... [animals-zone.com]

    No concept what hit them, when it does.
  • Yeah right. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Harlequin80 ( 1671040 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:16PM (#50952397)

    This has to compete against mines on land operating with excellent infrastructure and somehow do it for less money.

    I'm sorry but it just isn't going to happen any time soon. Olympic Dam in South Australia has absolutely massive gold, copper and uranium deposits but the economics of that mine couldn't be made to stack up in the current market. There is no way that untested, experimental mining in an incredibly hostile environment stands a chance.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There is no way that untested, experimental mining in an incredibly hostile environment stands a chance.

      Next thing you know some idiot will suggest mining gold in space.

    • by ls671 ( 1122017 )

      Gold mining is a matter of cost. Who knows? If they manage to find earth down there which contain 40 times more gold by cubic meter then, it might be profitable.

      Then again, what kind of robots are they planning to use? Maybe they are looking for solid gold, Atlantis and the like ;-)

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        It's in the ballpark of an order of magntiude more concentrated than what a good gold mine on dry land gets. But it's under no overburden (except the ocean itself) where as mines on land are generally under dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of meters of earth.

        There's three types of robots. One is a "can operate anywhere" crusher with low throughput. Another crusher requires relatively flat ground to operate on but has much higher throughput - so it operates on areas prepared by the first type. And the thi

    • According to TFA, just the dredger / cutter robots cost $30 million a piece. Plus a purpose built mothership. They are going to have to haul up a whole shitload of high grade ore to pay for those toys.

      • Maybe my math is off, but at $34,409/kg (which is the current price), they'll need 871kg or 1922 pounds to pay for a dredger/cutter robot.

        Keep in mind, also, that once they figure out how to do the mining and can show that it works, other people will probably buy their equipment to exploit other finds. If you will, they'll make money from every underwater mine.

        • That is of gold not ore. The highest grade mine in the world is 44g per tonne of ore. 871,000g of gold = 19795 tonnes of ore.

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            The deposit in question is 6g per tonne - which is still 5x better than your average gold mine on land. So the gold from 20k tonnes actually only pays for about 15% of a robot. But it also gives you 1400 tonnes of copper worth a quarter of another robot, plus nickel, silver, cobalt, and zinc.. altogether, yeah, 20k tonnes of ore, refined and sold at typical market prices, probably buys about one robot.

            However, it's worth adding that there's no overburden. On your average surface mine, you have to remove an

    • If the yields were the same you would no doubt be correct, but the article suggested that the deposits around these hydro-thermal vents are 10 times the density of modern land based deposits and they don't have to remove massive amounts of stone/dirt covering them in order to start mining, they're sitting right on the sea floor. That of course still doesn't make it a sure thing, but it definitely helps.

      • Even if that was the case for gold they would have to move a huge amount of ore. Fire Creek in the US is the highest grade gold mine in the world, by a huge margin, at 44gm per tonne. Even if that was at 10 times that amount they would have to shift huge tonnage of material to make it economic. One dredger is $30 million, assuming no maintenance or running cost they are going to have to bring 60,000 tonnes of ore to the surface just to cover the cost of the machine....

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          On the other hand, each of the robots clocks in at 310 tonnes; they're going to be crushing ore and pumping slurry at a pretty prodigious rate. The production ship to handle it 227 meters long staffed by up to 180 people - think "oil rig"-sized. It's supposed to be capable of filling up a transfer ship to haul the ore to China once every 5-7 days. We're not talking some backyard-scale mining operation, this is an operation designed to move serious tonnage.

        • Gold mines don't run on a couple million dollars of equipment either. They have conga lines of multi-million dollar dump trucks hauling material out of the mine (T 282Bs are $4-5 Million each). While there are far fewer of them in a standard mine excavators are also far more expensive, they often cost tens of millions of dollars each. I'd bet that your average precious metal mine requires at least $150 Million dollars of equipment just to get material out of the mine, some much more. When Goldcorp estab

          • Absolutely agree. The difference here is that these machines wont have a market for them if the process doesn't work where as surface machinery has a reliable second hand market. I'm not saying it is technically impossible, or that it won't happen in the future but the risk profile is crazy and the chances of it succeeding financially are close to zero.

    • Of course they don't have those pesky environmental regulations to stick to. There's nobody down at the ocean floor to complain about them dredging up tons of sediment. Just like the damage from fishing trawlers. Out of sight out of mind. Not that I'm for this because each of these vents is a unique ecosystem that is almost unknown to us.

      • Actually I think environmental regulation will probably stamp on this real hard. If they start creating the kind of silt plumes I envisage this would (they need to bring hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material to the surface) this will be affecting surrounding nations. Australia would get especially pissy if the silt was hitting the great barrier reef for example, and I doubt Indonesia would sit idly by while their fishing grounds are annihilated.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          I really have no firm grasp of how vertically mobile the silt would be.

          While overall the effects will probably be quite negative, if the silt does reach the surface and is carried into the deep ocean, there's a chance ironically of some positive effects. Most of the worlds' oceans are near dead-zones because they're mineral deficient (mainly iron). Iron seeding has been demonstrated in test projects by Pacific Northwest natives to vastly increase fish populations, and there are test projects working on usi

        • by jabuzz ( 182671 )

          You are assuming they don't pump the "tails" back down to the ocean floor. Near bottom plumes as they are known are however still likely to have environmental impacts.

          DeBeers have been doing sea floor mining for quite a while now for diamonds of the coast of Africa.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Olympic Dam has 1,6% copper and 600ppb gold under 350m (a third of a kilometer) of overburden. These deposits are 7% copper and 6000 ppb gold under zero overburn - just the ocean. I think it's fully understandable why they want to give mining this a go, it's an amazing deposit.

    • by r0kk3rz ( 825106 )

      The problem with the OD expansion is that you have to do some serious digging through some rather hard stuff before you even get to the ore body. This means that prices need to be high enough and be expected to remain high for a good decade for that mine to make any financial sense.

  • by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @09:44PM (#50952493)
    Did a Russian sub go down around PNG?
  • Not if, when (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Dereck1701 ( 1922824 )

    Deep sea mining is GOING to happen, whether it is good for the environment or not. If environmentalists/scientists are afraid of its effects they need to work with companies/governments to ensure that it is done with as little damage as is feasible. Attempts to sabotage it with claims of doom and gloom or wrapping it up in untenable amounts of red tape will only succeed in creating another "us vs them" mentality where each side is constantly trying to screw over the other with lies and propaganda campaign

    • I'm not so sure. I suspect that mineral extraction from sea water would come before mining the sea bed. While the concentration of gold in sea water is ridiculously low, it is still present and could be collected as a by product of desalination. The tech doesn't exist for that to be economically viable in the current market but it probably compares well against sea bed mining.

  • Nope.avi (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    The whole thing about each gold rush is that for the most part anybody who could scrounge together some very basic equipment could strike out and attempt to make their fortune. We are talking shovels, and sifters not multi-million dollar underwater robots the size of a tank. Heck most people aren't even qualified to land jobs working on the ship.

    It might have some great prospects and if you are already have a boatload of money and or a large corporation, it might make you a boatload more but a gold rush thi

    • "The whole thing about each gold rush is that for the most part anybody who could scrounge together some very basic equipment could strike out and attempt to make their fortune."

      Not exactly. The whole thing about each gold rush is that the ones selling the equipment to the crazy-at-heart everyothers were the ones solidly making a fortune.

      Now, humm... where did I leave my hefty stock of multimillion dollar tank-sized underwater robots? These naives are going to learn a lesson or two MWAHAHAHA!

  • We should be using tunnel boring machines for all our mining needs, gold, coal, whatever. Make them nuclear powered, and include a built in smelter.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @10:08PM (#50952595)
    I read this article all the time. They were not called drones then.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @10:09PM (#50952609)

    Has everyone already forgotten the BP disaster of 2010? Last thing we need is millions of barrels of gold spilling up from the depths of the ocean, polluting our beaches and choking our marine life.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @10:12PM (#50952637)
    In 1968, a Soviet ballistic missile submarine sank in the Pacific ocean [wikipedia.org]. In the 1970s, the CIA built a ship, the Glomar Explorer, to attempt to recover this submarine [wikipedia.org]. The CIA got Howard Hughes to provide a public front for the ship's construction. Its cover story was that it was going to mine manganese nodules off the ocean floor [wikipedia.org]. As part of this cover, there was a massive disinformation campaign regarding the amount of valuable materials which could be mined (or vacuumed as some of the news stories described it) off the ocean floor. Newspaper and magazine articles proclaimed how by the turn of the century, we would be mining most of our metals from the ocean. Growing up in the 1970s as a kid extremely interested in ocean sciences, I read a huge number of these stories with fascination.

    The cover for the operation was blown in 1975. But because of the disinformation campaign, it's still difficult to tell if these proposed mining operations have in fact accurately analyzed the financial viability of mining materials from the ocean floor. Or if they've been taken in by the hype generated as a cover story decades ago, and are assuming that if there were so many stories in major publications about the financial viability of ocean floor mining, that someone must've done their due diligence and concluded it was in fact financially viable. (As for the submarine, it broke while it was being hauled up to the surface, and the CIA only managed to recover about the front third of it. The more valuable conning tower section and propeller were lost. The recovered bow contained a couple nuclear torpedoes tough, so the CIA considered the operation one of their greatest successes of the Cold War.)
    • That was my first thought when I saw the headline. Remember reading the story about mining magnesium nodules when in grade school. Not the internal school newspaper but one distributed to multiple schools. Weekly Reader comes to mind but dang that was a long time ago.
  • It might not be possible, but I'd go for using the sea creatures themselves. A interesting project would be to develop coral that accumulates heavy metals from the water. And then harvest the corals and "replant" them. It would be useful on two different sides. One would be removing toxic materials that might be accumulating because of illegal dumping. And the other is it would be more sustainable while providing jobs for people.
  • I assume this means that a new Discovery Channel/Animal Planet "reality" show is just around the corner. "Underwater Gold", "Robot Miners", or something like that. It will be a nice complement to "Bering Sea Gold", "Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice", "Ice Cold Gold", "Prospectors", "The Gold Rush", "Jungle Gold", "Yukon Gold", etc. (Yes, those are all real television shows. And yes, that is how stupid Discovery Channel and Animal Planet have gotten.)

  • Mile-High Tidal waves from the water Aliens as punishment... Where is Ed Harris to dive down and save us all??
  • Mining for gold like this is a fool's errand, as much as stocking up in warehouses in case the world ends.

    Countries who do not have US (read US and other "free" nations) interests at heart control vast amounts of gold and other minerals which they CHOOSE to keep off the market for their own reasons. There is nothing stopping them from dumping their stock and making the bottom fall out of the markets at which point gold won't be worth mining or hoarding.

    Everyone has to judge their own finances, but I find i

  • by Anonymous Coward
    ...will be stealing the drones carrying gold....
  • Welcome our new robot overlords.
  • We've finally found a practical application for all of the robot fighting technology you see on those TV shows! It won't take long until those underwater robots have to be armed to defend against wildcatters.

  • So much gold that the price of gold worldwide decreases so much that their undersea operation becomes loss-making.
  • Somehow, I recall the deep ocean manganese fad in the 70's was a cover for snatching a sunken soviet sub from the Pacific floor.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • Just wait 'til they start accidentally hitting the undersea cables and partitioning the internet......

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