Vents can divulge secrets of life
SHAILE SHNAYAK , secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences that has got the licence to explore deep sea minerals, speaks to Down To Earth about India's progress in deep sea mining. Edited excerpts
India has been exploring deep sea for minerals since 1981. Now that the UN has extended another exploratory licence, what does it mean for the country? Seabed mining is very important for India, if you consider the future requirement. To the best of my knowledge, we do not have vast reserves of cobalt or nickel, or even gold and silver. So we are looking for alternative sources. For this, we need to have exploration experience of mining deep sea floor, where these metals are present in ores such as polymetallic nodules and hydrothermal sulfides. We need to find out the potential of this region. More exploration activities will also help us develop technologies. How far is India from deep sea mining? For picking up material from deep sea, we need remotely operated vehicles (ROV) with robotic arms. They can be designed only when we have technologies to investigate conditions of the seabed. This may take 10 to 15 years, even though the exploration licences expires in 2017. So we need to start well in advance. We are also trying to understand what may happen if you run mining equipment on the seabed. One of the impacts is it leads to more turbidity in that region. How long the turbidity will last is being studied. Conducting these environmental impact assessments are important because whenever we start mining, which is quite distant right now, the laws of the land will be applicable to the marine environment. What are the main concerns associated with deep sea mining? The areas we have been licensed recently hold hydrothermal vents. Several kinds of microbes that thrive in harsh environments are found here. The other issue is that we believe life originated in oceanic areas that had very high temperatures. Under that circumstance, certain reactions built amino acids, which is the basis of life. We need to find out the conditions there and if life is still originating in these places. What kind of investment does this involve? Basic exploration activities do not require much investment. All that one needs is a ship, which costs around ` 200 crore. Exploration activities involving sophisticated technologies would cost ` 300 crore to ` 400 crore. It depends on the level country wants to do these explorations. We have already built an ROV and an automatic soil tester. We will use them to collect information.