China enters race with foreign rivals to mine the seabed for valuable minerals
China can now explore the seabed for up to three valuable minerals but it faces a major challenge to close the mining technology gap with the West
With China recently achieving its long-held desire to exploit untapped underwater resources, a new method of sustaining its rapid economic development appeared to be secure.
The award of exploration contracts last month for valuable minerals by the 165-member International Seabed Authority, which regulates deep-sea mining activities, approved exploration plans for cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts by both China and Japan.
China can now legally poke around on a Western Pacific seamount, while Japan can venture beneath international waters off the isolated Japanese coral atoll of Minamitorishima. Both areas measure about 3,000 square kilometres - nearly three times the size of Hong Kong.
China is the only nation authorised to explore seabeds for as many as three major types of minerals, as it faces the depletion of natural resources at home and rising mineral prices abroad.
But the drive to mine the ocean floors has come up against unforeseen hurdles. China first secured the rights to explore for polymetallic nodules - lumps found on the ocean floor where layers of metals have formed around a rock core - in the northeast Pacific in 2001, and for polymetallic sulphide deposits in the southwest Indian Ocean two years ago.
China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (Comra) clinched the latest contract, along with the earlier contracts in 2001 and 2011.
The goal is to mine cobalt crusts, which are rich in iron, and hydroxide deposits containing significant concentrations of cobalt, titanium, nickel, platinum, molybdenum, tellurium, cerium and other metals and rare earth elements.
China won the contract partly because it had been surveying in the region over the past 15 years, according to Chinese marine authorities. It has built up a large fleet of survey vessels with deep-reaching robotic and manned submersibles, giving state leaders unprecedented confidence in China's ability to harvest the earth's undersea riches.
Shortly after winning the cobalt contract, President Xi Jinping vowed to turn the marine industries into a pillar of China's economy.
"China's maritime cause has generally entered the best period of development after years of efforts," he was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
"In no way will the country abandon its legitimate rights and interests, nor will it give up its core national interests."
But compared to developed countries, China is a latecomer to the game. Germany, the United States and Japan were conducting intensive surveys on cobalt crusts and made many promising findings as early as the 1980s.
A deposit near Hawaii alone was estimated to contain 300 million tons of cobalt, enough for thousands of years of consumption in the United States.
Also, China is reliant on overseas suppliers for technology and equipment for geophysical exploration. Amid concerns China could use and adapt such technology for its own engineering and military use, most countries restricted the export of advanced products to it. And now, some Chinese researchers doubt whether China can explore and exploit seabed minerals without the very best technology and equipment.
Xiao Zhijian , sales manager at China's biggest cobalt supplier, the Jinchuan Group, said cobalt reserves in China were small, and the country would desperately need them in the future.
The metal is widely used in the aerospace industry, he said, where aircraft engines need cobalt to maintain strength amid high temperatures. But the biggest consumption of cobalt is anticipated to be in industrial batteries.
When electric vehicles were still at the infant stage, the demand for cobalt was weak. Land reserves in Congo-Kinshasa alone could meet up to 70 per cent of the international demand, Xiao said.
"But we expect explosive growth in cobalt after 2017 as electric cars mature. Perhaps that is why the government was so eager to secure the seabed contract," he said.
Cui Yingchun , a researcher with China's First Institute of Oceanography, State Oceanic Administration, told Science and Technology Daily that cobalt crusts still puzzled scientists with their mysterious formation. For nearly a century scientists had been debating whether they were formed physically, chemically or even biologically.
But one thing is certain - mining them will be difficult. The technical challenge of mining the crusts will be much greater than that of mining polymetallic nodules, Cui told the newspaper. While the nodules are distributed loosely on soft sediments, the crusts are often tightly glued to very hard bedrock.
"While scraping the crusts, you must avoid the bedrock, otherwise the quality of the ore is severely affected," Cui said.
But the crusts contain many valuable metals and are widely distributed among relatively shallow seabeds. There is also less controversy about their exploitation in international communities, compared to other minerals, he said.
However, Cui explained that during mining "disturbance to the original seabed can be huge, and there is a significant risk of upsetting the entire ecosystem".
He added: "In addition, due to the current limitations of technology, the development of underwater equipment also faces no small challenge."
And that may prove to be China's bigger headache. Wang Xiuming , ultra-sonar expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Acoustics, said China was still far behind developed countries in the mining technology race.
"About 80 to 90 per cent of the geophysical surveying instruments on the international market are not allowed to be sold to China," he said.
"They do not sell precise instruments to us. They are afraid we will copy their designs.
"They are also afraid we will use the knowledge in the military - highly sensitive geophysical sensors can be used to detect and identify submarines.
"These instruments are very expensive, usually costing tens of millions of yuan, but money is not the main problem. The problem is nobody will sell it to us."
China is now developing its own equipment, but the gap with overseas products is huge, according to Wang. "When it comes to land surveying, the gap may be narrowing, but on ocean mapping we are still far behind. The government didn't realise the importance of seabed minerals," he said.
"When we joined the race, the foreign countries had been ahead of us for decades. This gap can't be eliminated in the short term."
Professor Chen Daizhao , a geophysicist with the CAS Institute of Geology and Geophysics, said China was not only backward when it came to equipment, but also software.
Most analytical software used in China was written by other countries. Even scientists who had used it for decades did not have a clue how the programme's core modules worked.
"The government is now aware of the problem and wants to achieve independence in both software and hardware," Chen said. "But it is extremely difficult to change the situation, as almost every basic tool we use is a foreign product."
The exception is Jiaolong, a deep sea research submersible that can dive to a depth of over 7,000 metres. Arguably the deepest manned submersible that can move freely on the ocean bed, Jiaolong is this month busily exploring China's contracted seabed in the northeast Pacific.
Jiaolong last month dived down to explore for polymetallic nodules, reaching a depth of more than 5,200 metres. The trip led to the discovery that more than 50 per cent of the seabed was covered by the nodules, confirming previous estimates.
But Chinese scientists were also astonished to find marine life thriving throughout the deep sea region. Many fish species along with sea cucumbers, starfish, shrimp, jellyfish, corals, sponges, crinoids and a total of 20 kinds of giant benthic creatures - species living in sedimentary seabed environments - were all observed, Xinhua reported.
The scientists estimate there is at least one cucumber in every 10 square metres, and in some areas the density of creatures was so high they almost filled the explorer's entire monitoring screen.
One important job of the mission was to relocate some creatures from abyssal plains to an undersea mountain chain. If future return visits showed these creatures could live happily in their new home, it would provide evidence the creatures could migrate and live in shallower waters, helping show that mining may not seriously harm biodiversity.
However, the Jiaolong experiment failed. A mission to trap sea life was dogged by mechanical or design problems, according to Xinhua, and put on hold.
China now has to grapple with the frustration of having a rich new source of natural wealth within its grasp, but with technological limitations and potential environmental damage barring its way.