After orbiting space lab, China wants an undersea one
Imagine, for a moment, that the year is 2034, and China has just declared ownership of a massive copper mine deep below the surface of the Western Pacific.
Although the site was first discovered and repeatedly explored by robotic submersibles from other countries, China is the first to send a manned vessel to the depths.
Living and working for two months in a nuclear-powered deep-sea station, at a depth of about 1,000 metres, 33 Chinese 'aquanauts' finish construction of a sophisticated mining facility atop the considerable mineral deposit. The switch is flicked, and rocks on the ocean floor begin to be pulverised - their copper-rich remains pumped to a floating platform above that is the size of a small city, where a fleet of empty cargo ships bearing China's flag await.
This may be just science fiction today, but it's all part of China's latest blueprint for construction of an elaborate facility on the ocean floor, in line with the nation's ambitious plans for deep-sea exploration.
At the 15th China Beijing International Hi-Tech Expo in May, the China Ship Scientific Research Centre, which built the Jiaolong manned submersible that reached a depth of more than 7,000 metres in the Western Pacific's Marianas Trench last month, revealed the official design of a mobile deep-sea station that is to be used in future ocean exploration.
Equipped with a nuclear reactor, the station would be able to support 33 crewmen for up to two months at a time.
'If a submersible were a plane, this station would be an aircraft carrier,' Ma Xiangneng, a researcher with the project, told China National Radio. 'The station will be an underwater palace, with showers, a living room and laboratories.'
The designs show the station resembling a nuclear submarine, with two propeller fans at the tail. It would measure 60.2 metres long, 15.8 metres wide and 9.7 metres tall, weighing about 2,600 tonnes.
Like a space station, the deep-sea station would have multiple ports to support the docking of smaller manned or unmanned vessels.
Researchers such as Ma have said the station's main purpose would be deep-sea mining. With an underwater 'mother ship' hovering above the station, located just below the surface and undisturbed by weather conditions, mining facilities could be built much more quickly and cheaply than if surface ships were used.
A smaller prototype, able to carry 12 crewmen on an 18-day dive, is expected to be finished by 2015. No completion date was given for the larger station, but some experts think it will be finished by 2030.
It's a risky endeavour, and the Chinese scientists involved conceded that they were aiming for operations at depths where more developed countries had failed. During the cold war, the Soviet Union deployed underwater habitats for military research, and the US built three so-called Sealabs for experiments that included testing the effects of living in an isolated environment.
These facilities all operated in much shallower waters, and they were discontinued relatively quickly after failing to prove their worth. France also tinkered with such deep-sea stations in the 1960s, with its series of Continental Shelf stations.
The Aquarius Reef Base, owned by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is currently the world's only undersea research station. It operates at a depth of just over 19 metres.
'We are still years behind developed countries and trying to catch up,' Ma said.
But as it is considered the 'world's factory' at a time when its resources are dwindling on land, China has come under more pressure than deep-sea forerunners to exploit ocean resources. The country imported more than 250 million tonnes of oil last year, or more than 5 million barrels a day. Official figures show that it is only a matter of time before China surpasses the US to become the biggest oil consumer. And Chinese companies are consuming ores from all over the globe as they flood the world with products ranging from toys to heavy machinery.
As prices for energy and raw materials continue to rise, Chinese officials and companies are eager to explore the untapped resources at the bottom of the world's oceans. The Russians have given China a big hand in this regard.
A designer of the Jiaolong said that when the project was started in the late 1990s, no factory in China could produce the titanium alloy needed to withstand the enormous pressure found at depths of 8,000 metres. So the hull was made at a military plant in Russia. Chinese scientists and engineers then studied the materials for years to be able to replicate them.
The designer, who wished to remain unnamed, said future generations of Chinese submersibles and the planned station would utilise a made-in-China titanium alloy.
Although Beijing frequently says its deep-sea programme is for civilian purposes, there has been no denial of military involvement. Since 2002, the deep-sea project has been financed by the 863 Programme, a government effort that is widely known to focus on military needs.
The China Ship Scientific Research Centre also operates under the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, one of the country's largest builders of naval vessels.
Possible military overtones aside, sending people to such risky depths has also sparked debate. Some experts argue that it will be neither economical nor safe for people to be mining at depths of several thousand metres underwater.
But Professor Fan Dejiang , a deep-sea geologist with the Ocean University of China, said that technological advancements would eventually allow deep-sea mines to be mostly automated.
'I think a deep-sea station probably has more military applications than economic value,' he said. 'You don't send miners to a place a million times more deadly than coal pits.'
But Fan said that manned underwater activities would play a crucial role in finding and locating minerals, as well as in setting up mining facilities and repairing broken pipelines.
Analysts also note that China has to overcome several hurdles in order to tap into the treasures of the sea. Constructing a massive, floating mining facility in the middle of the ocean will require technology that has not yet been developed, such as for anchoring and power generation. But the biggest risk might be the environmental damage that such mining could cause.
'We know little about the oceans, not to mention the regions at depths of several thousand metres,' Fan said. 'Many creatures have lived on the deep-sea floor undisturbed for millions of years.
'Once we start mining and drilling for oil, we can cause damage that no technology can repair.'