Photo: Patania II seabed mining robot (Courtesy of DEME)

Deep sea mining robot gets stuck 4,500 metres beneath Pacific Ocean’s surface

Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), the deep sea mining subsidiary of the Belgian dredger DEME, has faced a setback on one of the world’s first deep sea mining pilot test as its 25-tonne robot ‘nodule collector’ Patania II got detached and stranded on the Pacific Ocean’s seabed.

Photo showing Patania II seabed mining robot (Courtesy of DEME)
Patania II seabed mining robot (Courtesy of DEME)

In a world’s first, GSR deployed Patania II on a sea trial 4.5 kilometres beneath the sea surface to collect rock-like nodules – rich in nickel, cobalt, manganese and copper – on April 18 2021.

However, a broken cable has resulted in the detachment of the ultra-deepwater prototype nodule collector from the Normand Energy vessel, leaving it stranded on the Pacific Ocean’s seabed.

As reported by Reuters, GSR confirmed the incident took place, stating: “On its final dive in the GSR area, a lifting point separated and Patania II now stands on the seafloor. An operation to reconnect the lifting point begins this evening and we will provide an update in due course”.

This is not the first time GSR’s Patania II has failed during pilot tests, according to Greenpeace, who has been opposing the deep sea mining initiative citing environmental concerns.

In 2019 the company had to stop the trial of the same prototype nodule collector due to damage caused to the vehicle’s umbilical cable, Greenpeace said.

Photo showing Normand Energy, the vessel chartered by GSR to operate the Patania II (Courtesy of DEME)
Normand Energy, the vessel chartered by GSR to operate the Patania II (Courtesy of DEME)

Last week Greenpeace International activists painted “RISK!” across side of the Normand Energy, the vessel chartered by GSR to operate the Patania II, to highlight the threat of deep sea mining to the oceans.

Commenting on the latest development, Sandra Schoettner, deep sea biologist from Greenpeace Germany, said: “It’s ironic that an industry that wants to extract metals from the seabed ends up dropping it down there instead. This glaring operational failure must act as a stark warning that deep sea mining is too big a risk. Losing control of a 25-tonne mining machine at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean should sink the idea of ever mining the deep sea.

“The deep sea mining industry claims it’s ready to go, but investors and governments looking at what happened will only see irresponsible attempts to profit from the seabed spinning out of control. This industry has ‘risk’ written all over it and this is exactly why we need proper protection of the oceans – a Global Ocean Treaty that helps to put huge areas off-limits to industrial activity”.

GSR has denied it lost control of Patania II, stating ‘”projects like this always have challenges to contend with’”, Reuters reports.

GSR’s deep sea mining pilot

DEME’s seabed mining subsidiary GSR has been awarded a 75,000 square kilometre exploration contract area – 2.5 times the size of Belgium to operate in.

According to GSR, 4.5 kilometres beneath the surface, billions of potato-sized polymetallic nodules lie on the ocean floor. Prized for their high-grade metals, it is believed they contain more nickel, cobalt and manganese than in all land-based reserves combined.

These metals are said to be vital for the infrastructure required to accommodate an urban population forecast to grow by 2.3 billion by the 2060s.

GSR is collaborating with the European research project MiningImpact on the pilot trial. Scientists from 29 European institutes are joining efforts with the German exploration contract holder, BGR (Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources), to independently monitor the trials to help understand the environmental effects of collecting mineral resources from the seafloor.

The studies being conducted by the MiningImpact consortium will not only address the direct effects of collecting polymetallic nodules, but also those of the sediment plume created by the process.

The data will provide information on ecosystem effects of potential future mining that cannot be drawn from the small-scale experiments conducted in the past.

The first deployment and functionality check of Patania II was scheduled to be followed by several more ‘dives’ over the next few weeks in the Belgian and German contract areas of the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ).  The CCZ is a six million square kilometre region of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii.

The nodule collection system consists of a collector head, jet water pumps and a collection drum, while sensors monitored the entire process. On the pilot mission, Patania II is not connected to a riser pipe to bring the nodules to the surface, only the seafloor nodule collector is being trialled and monitored at this stage.

The next mission – planned for 2024 – will see a system integration test consisting of a full-scale prototype seafloor nodule collector along with a riser to bring the nodules to the surface, GSR informed earlier.