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UK to explore Pacific for polymetallic nodules

20 March 2013

The UK Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, in partnership with UK Seabed Resources – a subsidiary of US defence contractor Lockheed Martin – obtained a five–year licence to explore a 58,000 sq km area of the Pacific Ocean’s Clarion-Clipperton zone for mineral-rich polymetallic nodules.

Steve Ball, chief executive of UK Seabed Resources and Lockheed Martin UK said the polymetallic nodules in the 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 4,000m, the project to retrieve the metals is ‘technically exciting and, potentially, an extremely valuable endeavour’.

Lockheed claims to have discovered areas rich in nodules after a hunt in the 1970s for a lost Russian submarine, paid for by eccentric US billionaire Howard Hughes.

"Environmentally responsible collection of polymetallic nodules presents a complex engineering challenge but our team has the knowledge and experience to help position the UK at the forefront of this emerging industry," Ball said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who was present at the project launch, pledged to put Britain at the forefront of a new international seabed mining industry, which he claimed could be worth £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years.

Science minister David Willetts said the UK should benefit from already being a leader in underwater robotics and autonomous systems used in the development of North Sea oil and gas.

Currently the licence obtained from the International Seabed Authority (ISA) gives the UK government and Lockheed the right to explore but not extract, so a second licence would be required for that. And before any mechanical harvester is built, there will have to be a thorough environmental study, which could begin this summer.

The nodules, the size of a tennis ball, would be scooped up using a seabed harvester and then broken up to release the minerals.

Russia recently signed a 15-year contract to prospect for metallic sulphides in the Atlantic, where volcanic hot springs create mineral-rich rock formations. Two applications for exploration were filed last summer for areas in the west Pacific Ocean, one from China and another from Japan.

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