The 'bulk cutter' is built to make the world's first attempt at deep sea mining.

The 'bulk cutter' is built to make the world's first attempt at deep sea mining. Photo: Nautilus Minerals

On an engineering works floor in Britain stands a 250 tonne machine that promises to change the way we think about the seabed.
It's built to mine the deep.
 On the front of the track-mounted "bulk cutter" is a formidable toothed drum designed to chew through heavily mineralised volcanic vents, 1600 metres below the surface of the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea.
Attached will be a system to collect and pump a slurry of copper and gold-bearing ore to a mother ship, for transfer and onshore processing.
Nautilus Minerals chief executive Mike Johnston said from his Brisbane base that the unique machine had been built from existing cable trenching, mining and offshore oil and gas equipment.
"Basically all the existing technology is being put together in a different configuration," Mr Johnston said.
Far from being science fiction, this newest frontier in mineral exploitation only needs adaptation.
A quiet international rush is under way to stake out seabed claims, concentrating on the central Pacific.
Led by big businesses such as the US defence contractor, Lockheed Martin, it offers the dream of fortunes to poor island nations.
At the same time, an environmentalist coalition is growing to halt the industry, and in this little known diplomatic space, the Australian government is well positioned to become a leading negotiator.
"To me, it seems that Nautilus is bent on proving the concept - and I think they will," said ANU law professor Don Anton.
"Given that they are working on the continental shelf, rather than much deeper on the abyssal plain, I think it will work," Professor Anton said.
After protracted negotiation, Nautilus agreed to sell a 30 per cent share of the business  to the Papua New Guinea Government for $120 million this year.
The company, whose main shareholders also include Omani and Cypriot interests, will next commission a purpose-built ship in a project expected to be ready to mine after 2016, and costing more than $450 million.
This is cheap, Mr Johnston says.  "A similar size project on land, Ozminerals' Prominent Hill in South Australia, was built at a cost of $1.8 billion."
He said that while Prominent Hill covered 8000 hectares, the concentration of valuable ore was so great at Nautilus's Sowara 1 mine, that it would work a total area of 1.1 hectares.
Deep sea miners argue not only do they have less impact on the world around them, they don't need costly roads or bridges, and their environmental disturbance is naturally contained, because sediment plumes do not rise from the deep.
"I can't understand why people are pushing for a moratorium on things," Mr Johnston said. "It's all very low-impact stuff."
But with more than 1.5 million square kilometres of the Pacific sea floor now under leasehold, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign has called for the moratorium.
"There is insufficient scientific data to understand the impacts of deep sea mining, there are no regulatory frameworks in place to govern mining operations and the capacity to enforce such frameworks does not yet exist," said the campaign's Sydney-based activist, Natalie Lowrey.
"The issuing of exploration licences must cease until these issues are addressed."
Professor Anton, who is leading a federally funded project examining the industry's effects on Pacific islands, said: "developing states look at it altogether differently".
Around the Cook Islands, for example, prospectors have already identified billions of dollars worth of cobalt, a metal highly prized for its hardness.
Professor Anton also saw a pressing need to regulate the deep seas beyond national boundaries, where this year alone the UN's International Seabed Authority dispensed seven new exploration permits.
Among them is the Lockheed Martin-owned UK Seabed Resources, which plans to explore a 58,000 square kilometre area of the Pacific for polymetallic nodules. Announcing this, British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed seabed mining could be worth £40 billion ($71 billion).
Australia is one of 21 nations on the seabed authority's governing council, yet it is doing no deep sea mining of its own.
"There's not much going on in our waters because we are so terrestrially blessed," Professor Anton said. "That puts us in a position to take a robust leadership role in terms of environmental protection."

FACT BOX:
-   Deep sea miners are looking for high-grade mineral deposits of gold, copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and rare earths.
-   Some of these minerals form in volcanic vents, others lie on the sea floor as fruit-sized nodules, formed over millions of years.
-   While offshore miners may work in the 50 metres below the surface of the sea, deep sea mines start around 1500 metres and prospectors are now working at 4000 metres.
-   They are working deposits on, or near, the sea floor, rather than drilling far below it.
-   Regulations to mine the seabed of the high seas beyond national exclusive economic zones are being developed by the UN's International Seabed Authority.
-   It is issuing prospecting licences for areas of the central Pacific,  south-west Indian Ocean, and mid-Atlantic.
ENDS