New deep sea minor

April 6, 2012 - via Tecnische Universiteit Delft

Off the coast of Papua New Guinea, at a depth of 1600 meters, lies a treasure: the Solwara field is full of copper and gold deposits, and rare metals are found there, too. To exploit this field, would you tear off big chunks of the ocean floor with some kind of gripper or would you grind the soil, pumping the grit to the surface?
These are the kind of questions that BSc students who follow the Deep Sea minor will have to tackle. As part of this minor, which starts in September and is given at the 3mE faculty, students will make a field development plan for cases given to them by companies.

According to Dr Sape Miedema, of the offshore and dredging engineering section, many of the (dredging and engineering) companies that are now exploring the mining potential of the oceans are Dutch companies, and he believes there will be fruitful collaboration with these companies within the minor.
Deep sea mining is a hat rack for many interesting topics related to material sciences. “You need to understand how materials will behave at depths of several kilometers, where the pressure is huge, if you want to be able to do things there,” Miedema says.
And since deep sea mining will moreover take place at sites were there are volcanic deposits, the materials may also be exposed to corrosive chemicals that are found at active and extinct hydrothermal vents.

From a more classical offshore and dredging engineering’s point of view, deep sea mining also offers many interesting challenges. “Mining for minerals is much more complicated than retrieving oil, in which case you basically drill a hole,” says the Delft researcher. “For deep sea mining you need machines that actually drive over the ocean floor and dig away. A subsequent problem is getting the minerals to the surface. If you grind the deposits at the bottom and pump them to the surface, your tube might get blocked.”

“And how do you get all the energy you need – about a hundred megawatts - to the sea bottom? Thick cables will break under their own weight. A little nuclear submarine with an electrical plug is no option either, as a submarine will be crunched at that depth.”
In short, many intriguing questions for students to think about.

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