Lockheed Martin seabed mining venture set to explore Pacific

UK Seabed Resources has been granted an exploration license to search for polymetallic nodules, a mineral rich resource that could be worth around £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years.

The company, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, has been granted the license by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to explore 58,000km2 of the Pacific Ocean’s Clarion-Clipperton zone over the next five years.

Steve Ball, chief executive of UK Seabed Resources and Lockheed Martin UK said the polymetallic nodules in the so-called claim area have been shown to hold strategically relevant amounts of copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese and rare earth metals.

He added that at a depth of 4000m (4km) the project to retrieve the metals is ‘technically exciting and, potentially, an extremely valuable endeavour’.

David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said the effort presented commercial, scientific and environmental benefits for the UK with harvested polymetallic nodules expected to provide the UK supply chain with opportunities that build on its North Sea oil and gas expertise.

Willetts added that the technological advantages gained through the UK’s oil and gas industry will be called upon and developed further, as will those from the robotics and autonomous systems industries.

Around 100 potential UK supply chain partners attended a seabed harvesting workshop in London on March 14 to explore opportunities for their own involvement.

‘We’re committed to the earliest and fullest opportunity for UK industry to engage with us and we’ve been working with BIS and UKTI on this,’ said Ball. ‘We believe we can draw heavily on the world class, advanced engineering base in the UK and will be engaging in the weeks and months ahead.’

Environmental stewardship

Ball added the company plans to start environmental baselining toward the end of this summer to ensure the highest standards of environmental stewardship.

‘We’ve assembled a world class team of scientists to work alongside us including representatives from two UK institutions, the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton and the Natural History Museum in London,’ he said. They will be commissioned to carry out assessments of deep sea ecosystems.

‘One must characterise the environment, characterise the perturbation of the environment you’re assessing,’ said Ralph Spickermann, chief engineer, UK Seabed Resources. ‘Then you’re allowed to go and build a full-scale system to go to exploitation, but we’re some years away.’

Spickermann explained that environmental baselining will help inform the design of the mining system, which is likely to borrow from a number of existing subsea technologies. 

He said the greatest challenge come with the design of the nodule collector, which is expected to collect around 10kg of nodules per square metre whilst moving at one metre a second under hundreds of atmospheres for months at a time.

The dimensions of the collector will be relatively easy to work out, Spickermann said, but the team has yet to decide on whether it will run on tracks or screws.

He said, ‘In the 1980s a Lockheed team fielded a 100 ton vehicle with screws. There’s no question that the screws worked but tracks have come a long way since then. Commercial cable trenchers are using tracks.

‘That’s one of the trade-offs, you could use tracks or…screws, which use more power. The beauty of the screws in this very variable…environment is that they are very reliable versus tracks.’