Vancouver Prospector Looks to Mine the Deep Ocean Floor

Nautilus Minerals | BCBusiness
A diagram of how Nautilus’ undersea mining technology would work.

Vancouver’s Nautilus Minerals is poised to become the first mining company to exploit rich copper and gold deposits found around undersea volcanoes on the deep ocean floor

Their flagship project is Solwara 1, located more than 1.5 km below the surface off the coast of Papua New Guinea, boasts average copper grades over 7 per cent—land-based open pit mines currently target ore as low as 0.2 per cent—and comparatively high rates of gold.
“This is a deposit you can’t ignore,” says Scott Dunbar, the head of UBC’s Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering of  Solwara 1. “The rocks on the deep ocean floor contain about 7 per cent copper, so you don’t have to mine very much of it to make money, which provides a strong incentive to do it.”
Nautilus received a lease for Solwara 1 in January 2011, and currently holds undersea exploration rights to 500,000 square-km. of ocean floor. Its backers include the government of Papua New Guinea and mining giant Anglo American.
At Solwara 1, the company plans to use three remote-controlled machines to scour the sea floor for ore deposited by undersea volcanoes—formations where ultra-hot, metal-bearing water blasts up from deep within the earth, solidifying upon contact with the ocean. The machines, invented for this very project from scratch, will be scraping this hardened ore from the sea floor.  It will then be pumped about 1.5 km to the surface in slurry form to a waiting ship, and transported to China for refining.
That is the plan. But as rewarding as the grades are, the technical challenges are mind-numbingly complex: the machines will have to operate by remote control under crushing pressure, amid complete darkness, and constantly exposed to highly-corrosive salt water.
And the environmental consequences of such activities—scientists call our deep ocean “inner space” because our understanding of this environment is on par with actual space—are completely uncharted territory. 
Nautilus spokesman John Elias says the company has created a “fully-enclosed riser and lifting system”: a barrier to ensure mineralized ore does not come in contact with the water column above the mine site. The company predicts the seafloor disturbance will be limited to the bottom 300 metres, with no effects upon the upper depths where most fish live. “One of our primary concerns was to ensure that our operations have minimal effects upon the commercial and recreational fishing in the Bismarck Sea,” he says. 
Not everyone is sure the project is so benign.  A November 2012 review of the company’s Environmental Impact Study by a group affiliated with Friends of the Earth Australia concluded that Nautilus’ data and analysis of physical oceanography, sediment deposition and plume dispersal “suffers from a lack of rigour with regard to the modelling, presentation and analysis of data.” 
Elias would not provide BCBusiness with even a ballpark date for production to commence—although he confirmed construction of three remote-controlled seafloor machines is now 90 percent complete. A contract to manufacture a final major piece of undersea equipment will be awarded by the end of 2014.