Deep Sea Mining Machine Stuck at the Bottom of the Pacific Ocean

The 25-ton mining machine prototype was undergoing tests when it broke loose of its cable.
Fabienne Lang

A 25-ton deep sea mining robot prototype is currently lying stranded at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Reuters reported.

The uncrewed mining machine was in the middle of running tests when it became detached from the cable linking it to the ship on the surface, leaving it at the mercy of the Ocean some four km (13,000 feet) beneath the water.

The deep sea mining machine, known as Patania II, is developed by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), the deep-sea exploratory division of dredging company DEME Group. It is meant to gather small rocks on the ocean floor known as nodules that are rich in cobalt and other battery metals. These materials are vital for the production of electronics, smartphones, and batteries, as GSR explained.

Deep Sea Mining Machine Stuck at the Bottom of the Pacific Ocean
The rock nodules at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Source: GSR Handout/Reuters

The machine had nearly completed its first phase of trials when it became detached from its five-kilometer-long (16,400-foot) cable.

The area Patania II is deployed in is the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which is licensed to GSR for exploration. 

A GSR spokesperson told Reuters that rescue operations will be underway shortly. 

Deep Sea Mining Machine Stuck at the Bottom of the Pacific Ocean
View of the ocean floor from the Patania II. Source: GSR Handout/Reuters

The deployment of Patania II has been met with some reservations by critics of deep sea mining, as they fear mining the materials on the seafloor will only add to our Earth's problems. 

This is why GSR is trialing its prototype, and is being observed by independent scientists from 29 European institutes. Based on GSR's tests, the scientists will investigate the potential impact on the ecosystem of our ocean's mining. If everything were to go to plan, with scientists on board with the system, GSR plans on deploying a larger robot by 2024, which will bring up the materials to the surface, and hopes to start commercialization by 2028. 

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Even though companies and countries already have deep sea mining contracts at the ready, regulations around such mining have yet to be finalized by the International Seabed Authority, a U.N. body, explains Reuters.

Deep Sea Mining Machine Stuck at the Bottom of the Pacific Ocean
Ships chartered for the deep sea mining trial. Source: GSR Handout/Reuters

That said, as the BBC reported, big companies such as Google, BMW, Volvo, and Samsung have all signed a moratorium on deep sea ocean metals until these potential environmental risks have fully been assessed.

GSR is not the only company out there testing out deep sea mining. The Canadian/Dutch consortium DeepGreen/Allseas is set to start tests in 2022, and the UKSR in 2023. There are other, less invasive robotic tools that are also being looked into for deep sea mining, but they should also wait until all environmental risks are assessed.

Bearing all of this in mind, CEO of GSR Kris Van Nijen said "We will only apply for an operating permit if science shows that the cultivation of the tubers is ecologically sound."