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RC vehicles target valuable sea floor materials in Lockheed Martin mining project

In association with Lockheed Martin

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

In the 1970s, Lockheed Martin led a $500m consortium to explore the possibilities of deep-sea mining. Today, with renewed demand for metals to fuel the boom in electronics, they’re revisiting some of that work and adding the latest cutting-edge technology.

Through its wholly owned subsidiary UK Seabed Resources, Lockheed Martin UK – in partnership with the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – holds licences and contracts to explore a total of 133,000km2 of the Pacific sea floor for mineral-rich polymetallic nodules. These tennis ball-sized nodules, found 4km beneath the ocean’s surface, can provide millions of tonnes of copper, nickel, cobalt manganese and rare earth minerals that are used in the construction, aerospace, alternative energy and communications industries.

Collecting polymetallic nodules from the ocean floor has previously been economic, given the technological challenges of working far beneath the surface and potentially thousands of miles from land, outside the range of commercial helicopters.But today, technologies specifically developed for working in space and for autonomous underwater vehicles for the offshore oil industry have changed this dynamic.

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) will drive along the sea floor, scooping up nodules and delivering them to a carrier ship at the surface via slurry transfer lines and state-of-the-art riser pumps. Once there, they’ll be transported to processing plants where valuable metals can be extracted.  

“New engineering is required in every area of the value chain,” says Christopher Williams, MD of UK Seabed Resources. “The mechanics of lifting nodules off the sea floor, the locomotion system, the sensors and command-and-control suite, and the auxiliary ROVs that will be monitoring those activities and providing support.” 

The original work was carried out in California but has now migrated to the UK. Since securing exploration licences in 2013 and 2016, UK Seabed Resources has worked with a team of world-leading scientists to build knowledge and understanding of the abyssal environment. 

Two research cruises have spent a combined 50 days on station in the Pacific Ocean Clarion-Clipperton Zone, covering over 700km2 of seabed, generating more than 57,000 images of the sea floor and collecting in excess of 23,000 samples.

The company has been working with the UK supply chain to understand its capabilities and potential solutions. “We’re open minded about different ways to solve this materials handling problem of how to pick these nodules up and deliver them to the surface of the sea and how to do it in the most environmentally friendly way possible,” says Williams. 

Minimising the environmental impact, whether from noise, light or sediment, is a key concern, says Williams – and Lockheed is waiting for a regulatory framework to be put in place before progressing with any active projects.

Much of the technology required already exists in some form and is being used to dig trenches for undersea cables, for example, but there are areas of technical risk around the riser system, which is based on a composite or steel pipe like the ones used in the oil and gas industry. Lockheed Martin UK is developing its own solutions but is always “scanning the horizon” for potential alternatives, says Williams. “While we might have fairly well-developed concepts, we’re never going to rule out brilliant and imaginative ways of solving problems.”

For more information, visit lockheedmartin.com.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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