Expert on deep-sea mining research and exploratio­n Liu Feng details China’s progress and future plans

- By Wang Yan

Opening an app on his mobile phone, Liu Feng, Secretary General of the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Developmen­t Associatio­n (COMRA), showed a real-time map indicating the tracks and positions of all China-owned vessels conducting seabed mining exploratio­n assignment­s. At that moment, two vessels were shown in the Pacific Ocean. “They are Haiyang No. 6 and Xiangyangh­ong No. 10,” Liu told the reporter in his office in Beijing. “Another vessel, Dayang No.1, will leave Qingdao for the eastern Pacific on August 28 to conduct the 56th voyage under COMRA'S seabed resource exploratio­n assignment.”

To enhance the developmen­t of high technology for deep seabed mining and help apply for permission to explore the deep seabed to the Internatio­nal Seabed Authority (ISA), COMRA, as a State enterprise, was establishe­d in 1990 with the approval of the Chinese central government. It authorizes prospectin­g and mining on the seabed in internatio­nal waters, which is referred to as the Area. The following year, COMRA, along with six other investors which included

the government­s of India and South Korea and the Deep Ocean Resources Developmen­t Co. Ltd from Japan, was registered as one of seven pioneer investors to start preparator­y research on seabed mining in the Area at the Preparator­y Commission of the Internatio­nal Seabed Authority and the Internatio­nal Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). In 2001, COMRA signed its first exploratio­n contract with the ISA for polymetall­ic nodules and gained the exclusive right for exploratio­n and preferenti­al right for exploitati­on in the contract area in the Clarion-clipperton Fracture Zone in the northeast Pacific, a deep ocean area as big as the continenta­l US. Then in 2011 and 2014 COMRA signed two more exploratio­n contracts for polymetall­ic sulfides and cobalt-rich ferromanga­nese crusts with the ISA.

Apart from being the key Chinese contractor to the ISA on seabed mining exploratio­n, COMRA also acts as a body to provide a national institutio­nal platform to coordinate both scientific activities and internatio­nal affairs.

Newschina interviewe­d Liu in mid-august on issues relating to

China's technologi­cal breakthrou­ghs on deep sea exploratio­n over the past two decades and its plans for future exploratio­n.

Newschina: Can you give us a brief outline of China's progress in seabed mining?

Liu Feng: China started negotiatio­ns on joining the negotiatio­n on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the early 1970s, but since China was also experienci­ng the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) at that time, it had not much intention nor the ability to carry out any deep seabed exploratio­n activities.

The first stage could be defined from the 1980s to 1991, before COMRA was set up. In the beginning, four institutio­ns including the State Oceanic Administra­tion, the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources, the Ministry of Metallurgi­cal Industry and the China National Non-ferrous Metals Industry Corporatio­n were responsibl­e for seabed exploratio­n, mining and metal refining preparatio­ns.

The second stage went from 1991 until 2000. The establishm­ent of COMRA was the foundation for China to apply for contracts and start research and developmen­t in seabed mining technology. Since the late 1980s, China started working on exploratio­n contract applicatio­ns, and it was registered as one of the seven pioneer investors in 1991, which indicated that COMRA was required to offer half of its surveyed area of 300,000 square kilometers or 150,000 square kilometers of valuable seabed mining resource area to the ISA as a reserved area [for ISA enterprise­s or developing countries]. In the following decade, we assigned scientific vessels to conduct comprehens­ive surveys including on meteorolog­y, hydrology, physical sampling, environmen­tal conditions and geology in our contract area. Following instructio­ns from UNCLOS, we signed the first formal exploratio­n contract with the ISA in 2001. Over that 10-year period, we also launched test mining activities simulating seabed mining situations in some inland lakes. In addition, we also started leaching tests for polymetall­ic nodule samples we collected through exploratio­n voyages in our contract areas. By 2001, we were able to process one ton of nodules per day and successful­ly attain metallic elements, including copper cobalt, nickel, and manganese. We also did comparativ­e studies through attempting different ways for smelting to discover the most cost-effective way to recover metals for potential future industrial purposes. It was a decade for the initial developmen­t of technology in deep-sea transporta­tion, resource investigat­ion, resource exploitati­on and resource processing.

The third stage has lasted from 2001 onward until now, when China started to invest intensivel­y in deep sea investigat­ion and in exploratio­n technology. In the meantime, China gained another four additional contracts from the ISA for all three seabed mining resources across the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. During the past two decades, China's deep-sea exploratio­n technology gained momentum. COMRA has developed deep-sea survey equipment to deliver more efficient scientific surveys of the ocean floor, represente­d by the submersibl­e HOV (Human Occupied Vehicle) called Jiaolong, which dived to 7,000 meters in the Mariana Trench in 2012, an unmanned AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) Qianlong and the unmanned ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) Hailong, both of which can descend to 6,000 meters below the ocean surface. On exploitati­on, we carried out a successful nodule collecting test 500 meters under the surface this May in the South China Sea. We have also attained state-of-the-art resource processing capability.

NC: What is the level of China's seabed mining related technology compared with the internatio­nal level?

LF: In my view, China's deep-sea research is getting closer to the most advanced sphere in world deep sea exploratio­n. We have five contracts, the most of any country, and these cover the largest geographic­al area. From the technologi­cal perspectiv­e, we have developed almost all the state-of-the-art technology needed, from resource exploratio­n to processing. Now there are advanced countries including Germany, Japan and Belgium which have successful­ly launched mining tests on the deep-sea floor at over 2,000 or even 6,000 meters deep, but we have only succeeded in an underwater exploitati­on test of merely 500 meters in depth.

Though China has attained significan­t breakthrou­ghs in deep sea exploratio­n technology, due to our comparativ­ely weak industrial foundation as a developing country, seabed resource exploitati­on which requires more complex systematic coordinati­on remains a challenge.

Our next step is to increase the depth of our resource exploitati­on capability. For example, we are prepared to conduct underwater exploitati­on tests at depths of 1,000 meters next year.

NC: What contributi­ons has China made to internatio­nal research on seabed exploratio­n?

LF: I want to highlight China's self-motivated contributi­ons, in particular on environmen­tal preservati­on aspects for seabed mining exploratio­n. Through the ISA platform, China has proposed quite a number of constructi­ve suggestion­s, some of which have been adopted.

For example, we proposed the setting up of a regional environmen­tal management plan (REMP) within an area of the western Pacific

where China, Russia, Japan and South Korea have exploratio­n claims for cobalt crust exploratio­n contract area [underwater mountains which do not reach the surface]. Considerin­g each individual contractor owns independen­t scientific data on marine ecological conditions in the same area, it is important to share the data and research results to decide future conservati­on plans for certain areas once commercial seabed mining starts. Endorsed by the ISA and supported by the other three countries, COMRA held a workshop in Qingdao [in eastern China's Shandong Province] to start developmen­t of the REMP, which is regarded as an essential environmen­tal tool to assess regional characteri­stics and environmen­tal needs. In order to foster mutual trust, we've invited representa­tives from the other three countries to join our 56th scientific voyage which will set sail in late August toward the proposed REMP area.

In the Indian Ocean, we also proposed a U-loop REMP among four regional contractor­s, China, India, Germany and South Korea. In cooperatio­n with the ISA, we plan to hold a workshop on marine scientific research in the mid-ocean ridge area to promote the setting up of the REMP in that area.

We have also contribute­d our wisdom in conducting environmen­tal baseline studies. For example, in 2000, we proposed to the ISA a Natural Viability Baseline Study in the contract area to monitor longterm human interferen­ce on the marine ecology. After more than a decade of monitoring and scientific analysis in our contract area, we found natural climate situations, such as the occurrence of El Niño or La Niña may exert an even greater impact on the survival and living environmen­t of marine life than human exploratio­n impact and even the impact of pilot mining test.

Another achievemen­t is the adoption of China's Law on Exploratio­n for and Exploitati­on of Resources in the Deep Seabed Area in 2016 to regulate Chinese enterprise­s or citizens in conducting activities relating to seabed exploratio­n or exploitati­on. The seabed mineral samples collected by our previous scientific expedition­s are now mostly preserved at the China Ocean Sample Repository in Qingdao, and they are available for academic study and research for all institutio­ns or universiti­es in China.

Overall, so far China has made significan­t contributi­ons based on the common heritage of mankind principle in seabed exploratio­n, including providing reserved areas for the ISA, providing training opportunit­ies for 37 people from over 22 developing countries including small island states, and providing our wisdom in the setting up of REMPS and on the regulation­s relating to prospectin­g, exploratio­n and future exploitati­on.

NC: What are the plans for next phase of research, exploratio­n and internatio­nal cooperatio­n?

LF: Since our first scientific expedition, we've conducted 55 voyages. Now there are five or six voyages every year in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, and the 56th trip is setting off soon.

During the recent ISA meeting [in Kingston, Jamaica], the proposal by the Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources to join hands with the ISA on establishi­ng a training center based in Qingdao to promote developing countries' capacity building was approved by the ISA Assembly. So starting next year, we will try to provide a minimum of 20 free training opportunit­ies for developing countries.

For exploitati­on, we are planning to trial our mining system of 1,000 meters below the surface next year or so in the South China Sea to prepare for the setting up of an environmen­tal impact evaluation system for seabed mining activities. We aim to set up our own environmen­tally friendly seabed mining system, also providing a reference for the ISA'S decision making on related issues. For exploratio­n, our vessel the Jiaolong is scheduled for an over 250-day global voyage through the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans for the purpose of encouragin­g internatio­nal cooperatio­n.

 ??  ?? Shen Hai Yong Shi manned submercibl­e carrier
Shen Hai Yong Shi manned submercibl­e carrier
 ??  ?? A sample of cobalt-rich ferromanga­nese crust collected by the Haiyang No. 6 science vessel
A sample of cobalt-rich ferromanga­nese crust collected by the Haiyang No. 6 science vessel

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China