New Technique Developed to Explore Seafloor Mineral Deposits

Credit: NOC Credit: NOC

By MarEx 2018-12-18 19:57:24

A new project has been announced to reduce the potential environmental impact                                        of seafloor mining.

Many deposits were formed by hot springs on the seafloor and the vast majority                                          of these now lie under a blanket of marine sediment. The question facing geologists                                    is whether these buried mineral deposits still contain valuable metals: have they been                                dissolved since they formed thousands of years ago beneath the Earth’s crust                                           or become even more concentrated?

Project ULTRA will address these questions using a robotic drilling rig to drill the deposits.                        This will also generate the first three dimensional image of the deposits, using scientific                              instruments on the surrounding seafloor to listen to vibrations from the drill as it bores                             through the seafloor. The boreholes will then be sealed and returned to a year later,                               when fluids will be tapped-off from the plugs to test for reactions deep inside the deposit.

The rock core taken by the drill and the fluid samples will reveal the composition and                                structure of these types of mineral deposit to identify where the most valuable metals                             are located in the deposit. In this way, Project ULTRA will help ensure any future                                        exploitation would be able to minimize the disturbance to the seafloor and its                                 surrounding environment.

Project ULTRA has been funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC),                        and will be led by Professor Bramley Murton at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).                        The project forms part of the NOC’s ongoing research into seafloor resources and is a                            collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Universities of Southampton,                         Cardiff and Leeds, Memorial University in Canada, as well as Oxford Museum, GEOMAR,                     Nautilus Minerals, VNIIOkeangeologia from Russia, and SMD Ltd.

Rising demand for minerals and metals has sparked renewed interest in seabed mining.                          Since 2001, the International Seabed Authority has issued licenses to approximately 30                              government and private organizations to explore 500,000 square miles of the deep sea                           outside national jurisdiction for minerals.

This increasing interest in seafloor mining globally has drawn some criticism. Despite the                            term “mining,” much of the activity would involve extraction of minerals over very wide areas                       of the sea floor rather than digging down to any great depth, potentially leaving a vast footprint                   on the deepsea habitats in which these mineral deposits occur. Earlier this year, a study by                        the University of Exeter and Greenpeace warned that mining on the ocean floor could do                           irreversible damage to deepsea ecosystems. The deep sea (depths below 200m) covers                    about half of the Earth’s surface and is home to a vast range of species.

New discoveries continue to be made about the ecology of deep seafloor environments.                             Earlier this year, scientists from NOC and the University of Southampton found a series                              of depressions forming mysterious “tracks” on the seafloor that may be an unprecedented                        record of deep-diving whales.Additionally, U.K. scientists recently discovered that  bacteria in the   deepest parts of the seafloor are absorbing carbon dioxide and could be an additional food source             for other deep-sea life.





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