While many firms are looking to the moon for mining opportunities, one Australian firm believes there could be precious metals a lot nearer to home.

Deep-sea robots will be sent to mine mineral deposits in the deep ocean in 2019 in a test for a controversial new scheme, the Daily Mail reports.

As land-based mineral stores are becoming depleted, the ocean floor is becoming a more attractive mining prospect, containing gold, copper and other precious metal deposits used to make electronics, renewable energy tools and even medical imaging machines.

But deep-sea excavation may have a negative impact on deep ocean marine life, as robot mining may destroy their homes and disturb these sensitive species.


The Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals plans to send robots to mine deposits rich in copper and gold in the waters of Papua New Guinea.

But it seems that other countries will be catching up soon - The International Seabed Authority, which regulates deep-sea mining across the world, has granted 25 countries contracts to search for minerals.

"There's a gold rush mentality that has emerged," said Professor Mark Hannington, a geologist at GEOMAR-Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Germany.

He and other researchers poke about mining the seafloor at the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences 2017 annual meeting in Boston.

Since nobody has mined the deep seafloor as yet, no one knows what effect it will have and how it could disturb deep-sea species.

While deep-sea mining hasn't begun as yet, shallow water mining for diamonds has been taking place for a long time.

According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the diamond jeweler de Beers obtains a significant portion of its diamond production from the continental shelf of Southern Africa.

But now, we may not be able to satisfy the demand for rare materials unless we mine the seabed.

"We now have an increasing demand for metals that are becoming more expensive to acquire on land," Professor Hannington said.

Currently, land-based miners are having to mine deeper and deeper into the earth for lower grade mineral deposits, said Dr James Hein, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey in a report by NBC News.

"The really rich, high-grade deposits on land have already been mined," he said.

He said that it's not likely that deep-sea mined will replace land-based mines, but there are large amounts of mineral on the seafloor.

"There's tremendous amounts of metal," Dr Hein said.

"The question is how much of it's going to be economically extractable."

Hein says that this mining will be needed to improve the standard of living in developing countries such as China and India.

The deposits are also needed for the renewable energy, as infrastructure such as wind turbines and solar cells require rare metals which are found in deep ocean minerals.

The minerals on the ocean floor have been building up on rocks and sediments for millions of years, and there are three main types that potential deep-sea miners have their eyes set on.

The first kind are Polymetallic Nodules which can be found up to 6,000 meters deep.

They form when metal collect on debris on the seafloor sediment such as fossils and even shark teeth.

These nodules, which can be the size of golf balls or footballs and contain minerals such as nickel, cobalt, copper and lithium, which is used in rechargeable batteries.

Although these nodules will be fairly easy for robots to sweep up, companies are working figuring out how to lift these nodules to the surface.

Long pipers with minerals may be used to bring the minerals up into ships.

The second mineral type are ferromanganese crusts which are found out more shallow depths of 400 to 5,000 meters.

They contain elements such as cobalt, and rare elements such as tellerium, which is used to make solar cells for renewable solar energy.

But these are crusts are difficult to mine because they have to be separate from the rocks they're growing on which risks diluting the minerals and making them less valuable.

The third kind of mineral deposit are seafloor massive sulfides which form around hydrothermal vents on the seafloor which release super-hot liquid from the earth's crust and deposits minerals in the water surrounding them.

These seafloor massive sulfides contain metals such as copper, gold, zinc ans sliver.

The Nautilus robots will work by crawling on the seafloor and picking up the deposits to be transported back to the surface.

However this wont be an easy task, as the water pressure in the deep-sea is extreme and the temperatures are very cold.

While the minerals of the seabed are useful for manufacturing various technologies, deep-sea excavation may have a negative impact on deep-sea creatures.

They're used to the extreme conditions at the bottom of the ocean and are very sensitive to disturbances.

For example, the recently discovered Casper octopod lays its eggs on the dead stalks of sponges attached to seafloor nodules.

But deep-sea mining robots could alter their habitat and the habitat of other deep-sea species by removing these sediments, which also contain a lot of food

The mining could also lift plumes of sediment that could bury the animals, and some of these plumes may contain toxic chemicals such as lead.

Setting aside protected areas could allow miners to carry out deep-sea excavations in patterns, leaving space for sea-life to relocate in areas that aren't being mined.

For example, hydrothermal vents which are colonized by tubeworms could be avoided in favor of those that don't have these animal colonies.

Nautilus Minerals is even considering moving animals to safer places and providing them with crates as alternative homes.

Researchers are carrying out experiments that mimic deep-sea mining to see how it affects surrounding ecosystems.

Dr Daniel Jones, a marine biologist at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, United Kingdom, and his colleagues have found that ares with a simulated mining effect have fewer animals and species than untouched areas, even decades later.