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

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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.

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