Charting riches in the ocean's depths

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have previously estimated that the Norwegian continental shelf may contain a great wealth of minerals and metals. Now they suggest Norway take steps to clarify the industrial potential of mineral extraction from the seabed.

In September, a research ship returned to Norway from the Arctic waters between Jan Mayen and Svalbard, where its crew spent three weeks collecting mineral samples and data. The research cruise is part of the MarMine project. MarMine was established by NTNU to investigate the potential for seafloor mineral extraction. MarMine is supported by the Research Council of Norway and several leading Norwegian players in the offshore industry and land-based mining.

Copper, zinc, gold and silver
The expedition travelled to the Mohns Ridge area, north of Jan Mayen in the Norwegian Sea. The University of Bergen, among others, has conducted research charting geological formations along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that may be very rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver.

The research vessel was loaded with various underwater vehicles with which to collect data. In addition, robots drilled cores in the seabed and did geological and biological sampling at the seabed site.

“The data and samples from this expedition will form the basis for research on various technological aspects related to seafloor mineral extraction. The expedition will test previous resource estimates, and the data will enable new estimates to be made,” says MarMine project leader Kurt Aasly. He is an associate professor at NTNU’s Department of Geology and Mineral Resources Engineering.

The researchers believe that this research cruise has collected data for at least four years of study on various related issues.

Huge global interest
Interest in seabed minerals is huge, and Japan, South Korea, China, India, Germany, Russia and France have already established large national programmes to explore the potential for seafloor mineral extraction.

“Norway is a nation with a long tradition and great expertise in the maritime industry, marine research, offshore oil and gas,” says Martin Ludvigsen, expedition leader and professor at the Department of Marine Technology.

Ludvigsen and his colleagues from NTNU's AMOS, the Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems, have recently published a paper describing the different kinds of tools that are under development at AMOS to explore and map the seabed—and that researchers tested on the recent mapping cruise.

He thinks that Norway “should take greater advantage of these marine minerals in order not to be left behind. If we don’t, we could miss valuable possibilities and related industrial development,” he says.

Cutting-edge expertise
The transfer of expertise from both oil and gas extraction and land-based mining can help position Norway well in this potential new industry.

“Norwegian oil companies have built up cutting-edge expertise in the oil and gas industry that could prove useful for Norway if the mineral resources on the seabed turn out to warrant developing them as an industry,” says Aasly.

“The service and supply industry can also help strengthen our position as it develops into an important support market. For suppliers, this market could be important even if it turns out that the resource base isn’t commercially viable in the Norwegian Economic Zone,” Aasly adds.

The development of a new industry in seafloor minerals will require resource mapping, technology development, and further development of a management plan and the environment.

“This is a capital-intensive exercise that can be tough for industry to carry out alone. You have to put a national strategy and commitment into place, like happened when the groundwork of the petroleum adventure was laid in the 1960s and 70s,” says Ludvigsen.

Full bibliographic information


Ludvigsen, Martin and Asgeir Sørensen. Towards integrated autonomous underwater operations for ocean mapping and monitoring. Annual Reviews in Control. Available online 23 September 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.arcontrol.2016.09.013
Attached files
  • Here's part of what researchers are after on the seafloor: Copper, as seen through a microscope. Photo: Kurt Aasly, NTNU. Material: Mohnsryggen / UiB
  • Researchers used an AUV, or underwater autonomous vehicle, as they studied the seafloor near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Photo: NTNU AUR Lab/ Geir Johnsen

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