World’s First Verification Test of Deep-Sea Manganese Nodule “Lifting System”

– Opening up new possibilities for the commercialization of technology for mining deep-sea mineral resources –

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (Minister Kim Young-suk) announced that it has developed a lifting system that transports manganese nodules collected from the deep seabed to a mining ship on the surface of the water, and successfully conducted verification testing at sea.

Performed jointly by the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology and the Research Institute of Ships and Ocean Engineering (KRISO) from December 14 to 24, 2015, the test was held 35 kilometers from shore northeast of Guryongpo, Nam-gu, Pohang City, at a depth of about 1,200 meters.

Manganese nodules are mineral resources that are often called “the black gold of the seabed” as they contain large quantities of strategic metals such as nickel, cobalt, and copper that are used as basic materials for the high-tech industry, and are found on the deep-sea floor at a depth of approximately 5,000 meters.

To mine manganese nodules from the deep seabed, they need to be collected by a mining robot and subsequently transported to a mining ship through a pipe. For the test, a buffer system, which served as an interim storage place for the manganese nodules collected from the deep seabed, was first installed at a depth of 500 meters. Then the manganese nodules were stored in the buffer system before being transported to a mining ship through a lifting riser, a structure consisting of a lifting pump and pipes.

With the successful test operation of the buffer system, the lifting pump, and the software for remote, real-time operation, all of which were developed with Korea’s own technology, Korea was able to prove its capability to lead the development of deep-sea mineral resources. In addition, it also verified the performance of the on-ship processing facilities, which separated and recovered the manganese nodules from the seawater lifted onto the mining ship while discharging the seawater from the ship in a continuous cycle.

In addition, the test demonstrated the collective technological prowess of Korean marine equipment manufacturers by using the world’s first eight-inch lifting riser, which was designed for submerged arc welding (SAW), Korea’s own patented technology.

In particular, the buffer system validated through this test is Korea’s own model developed by KRISO and it plays a core role in ensuring the safety and economic efficiency of the mineral lifting process by storing manganese nodules and controlling the quantity supplied to the ship using the lifting pump.

The experiment also served as a highly meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that Korea has secured the technology basis for the front-end engineering & design (FEED) as Korea’s own technology was applied to the entire process from the handling of the structures and equipment of the lifting system to the design, production, installation, and operation of the onboard processing facilities.

The success of this experiment marks the completion of the core lifting technology needed to transport manganese nodules collected by a mining robot to a mining ship, following the successful testing of KRISO’s own deep-sea mining robot performed at 1,370 meters below sea level in July 2013. This is one of the representative achievements of the Pacific Deep Sea Mineral Resources Development Project, which was initiated by the Korean government in 1994.

Thanks to this project, and based on more than 20 years of research on and development of deep-sea mineral resources, Korea has been able to acquire core mining technology for the purpose of commercialization. Experts, too, believe that the test’s success will serve as an importance catalyst for Korea to lead the global efforts to develop and commercialize the technology to mine manganese nodules.

Yeon Young-jin, Director of Marine Policy at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, said, “The technology for excavating underwater mineral resources has been designed for use in extreme environments. The success of this test will lead to the technology’s commercialization, so that it will be used to mine deep sea mineral resources. The technology can be applied in other fields that deal with extreme environments such as the shipbuilding and offshore plant industry.

As Korea relies heavily on imports for natural resources, the government has focused on the development of underwater mineral resources with the goal of expanding the country’s ocean economic territory and securing a long-term, stable source of future resources.

In 2002, the Korean government acquired sole prospecting rights over the Clarion-Clipperton (C-C) Zone, located about 2,000 kilometers southeast of Hawaii, from the International Seabed Authority (ISA). This has facilitated Korea’s exploration of manganese nodules, located within the exclusive exploration and mining area (75,000 square kilometers), and the development of related technology for the purpose of commercialization.

Korea is the seventh country to secure an exclusive mining area for exploration in the C-C Zone in the Pacific Ocean, which is believed to hold up to 560 million tons of manganese nodules. Among this amount, Korea will be capable of mining three million tons each year for over 100 years. Thus, once the technology is fully developed and commercialized, it will be able to generate more than 2 trillion KRW annually by replacing energy imports.

To date, Korea has secured vast ocean economic territory with the rights to explore a total area of 112,000 square kilometers, or nearly 1.12 times the size of South Korea (approximately 100,000 square kilometers), made up of the mining area in the aforementioned C-C Zone in the Pacific Ocean, and additional exclusive areas to explore seafloor polymetallic sulphides in Central Indian Ridge, Tonga EEZ, and Fiji EEZ. The mining technology that Korea has developed will also be used for the development of other mineral resources, such as seafloor polymetallic sulphides and manganese crusts.