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April 2012 Issue

Deep-Seabed Mining of Manganese Nodules Comes Around Again
By Charles L. Morgan

Since their initial discovery by the English HMS Challenger expedition in the 1870s, deep-seabed manganese nodules have attracted sporadic but intense economic attention. Several private industrial and government-sponsored efforts to develop these resources were undertaken in the 1970s through 1990s, and significant investments were made by commercial consortia to development ventures. These early ventures were established under exploration contracts, authorized by the United Nations Law of the Sea, between the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and government-sponsored entities. “Pioneer investors” included China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, France, India and the Interoceanmetal Joint Organization, a consortium representing Bulgaria, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Russian Federation and Slovakia.

Between 1976 and 1986, the market value of nickel plunged from $14,200 per tonne to $5,770 per tonne (1998 constant U.S. dollars), shattering business plans for the development of these seabed resources. No additional investors joined the seven pioneers, and these programs were reduced to minimal maintenance of their ISA claims, with no apparent commitments to aggressive development. The 15-year ISA contracts for the pioneer investors were all executed in 2001 and 2002 and will expire by March 24, 2017.

But things changed in July 2006, when Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources signed a contract with the ISA to become the eighth contractor working on the development of manganese nodule resources on the international seabed. The ISA has since issued two more exploration contracts to Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (Aiwo District, Republic of Nauru) and Tonga Offshore Mining Ltd. (Nuku’alofa, Tonga) in 2011 and 2012, respectively. While these new entries don’t constitute a gold rush, a renewed interest is evident, as contractors seem to think these resources are worth the license fee and extensive due diligence required to obtain and maintain exploration contracts. The ISA is this year initiating the process of developing mining regulations so the existing contractors and new entries will have a predictable resource development path. There are several likely reasons for this change, one of which is a more stabilized demand for manganese nodules.

The example of the rise and fall of manganese nodule mining ventures in the 1970s and 1980s clearly illustrates that prediction of metal markets is not a well-developed science. Metal prices are sensitive to both supply- and demand-side pressures that vary with politics, technology and other variables. Mining investors take major and often undefined risks. In 1980, manganese nodules were generally classified as a nickel ore, and economic projections for their commercial development included recovery of the nickel, copper and cobalt. Economists predicted that manganese might be valuable, but most developers concluded that the ease of access to ores with manganese content greater than 50 percent from Africa and other land mines would make commercial production of subsea manganese unlikely. Manganese nodules contain about 30 percent manganese on a dry-weight basis, and now that higher-grade land ores are getting harder to find, 30 percent is starting to be an attractive option, even though it seemed low in the 1970s and 1980s.

Demand for manganese has also changed over the past two decades. The ongoing development of infrastructure and improvement in the standards of living in China, India, Brazil and other countries’ has led to extensive construction, such as the building of high-rises, bridges and ships, requiring large quantities of steel. Manganese composes about 1 percent of most steel formulations, so demand for it is up. This new demand, along with increasing demands for nickel, copper and cobalt, has redefined the potential economics of manganese nodule mining.

Technology has also evolved significantly since the pioneers’ initial investments in manganese nodules, making seabed mining more feasible. Several small-scale mining systems were tested in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the northeastern tropical Pacific in the 1970s and 1980s, recovering several hundred tons of manganese nodules. The offshore oil and gas industry has since made remarkable advances on power, lift and control technologies. New mining systems can take advantage of earlier technologies to mitigate the large risks of new development.

Additionally, more accurate predictions of deep-seabed resources are now available. John Mero, in his book Mineral Resources of the Sea, predicted huge nodule resources with high concentrations of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt in the CCZ in 1965 (based on, at most, a few hundred sample recoveries). The credibility of these predictions suffered greatly after the abrupt halt of early development efforts.

Then, in early 2010, the ISA published a comprehensive assessment of the manganese nodule resources found in the CCZ (http://bit.ly/z3DybI). This work relied on all available published resource data, as well as proprietary data contributed by the pioneer investors of more than 8,000 sampled stations in the region. It concluded that the CCZ may host more than 27 billion metric tons of manganese nodules, containing approximately 7 billion metric tons of manganese, 340 million metric tons of nickel, 290 metric tons of copper and 58 metric tons of cobalt.

Given steadily increasing market prices for manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt; the successful CCZ pioneer tests; the direct applicability of advanced deepwater petroleum technology; and the vastly improved knowledge of the likely enormous extent of the CCZ’s metal resources, it may well be that, this time, manganese nodules will become a significant source of metals.



Charles L. Morgan, chairman of the Underwater Mining Institute, has been an environmental planner in Hawaii since 2000. He works at Planning Solutions Inc. (Honolulu, Hawaii) and focuses on permitting and environmental impact assessment for renewable energy projects, with a long-term interest in development of marine mineral resources. He worked previously at the Research Corp. of the University of Hawai’i.


2013:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.