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Breakthrough Solutions for the Sustainable Harvesting and Processing of Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Blue Nodules (Breakthrough Solutions for the Sustainable Harvesting and Processing of Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2020-07-31

The strategic importance of a sustainable supply of raw materials to the EU has been well recognised, in particular supply of Critical Raw Materials (CRM). CRM are vital for Europe’s innovative technologies, crucial alloys and for innovative products for the energy transition like batteries, wind turbines and solar energy.

The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on Raw Materials objective is that, by 2020, Europe will have reduced its dependency on raw materials imports by accelerating innovations that ensure secure and sustainable supplies of raw materials or prevent wastage of key raw materials. The launch in 2017 of the European Battery Alliance by the EC, to create a competitive manufacturing value chain in Europe, puts even more focus on the dependency of raw materials, specifically found in Polymetallic Nodules.

Polymetallic nodules occur on the seabed in most oceans around the world and contain large quantities of critical raw materials, e.g. nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese as well as gallium and rare earth elements. Exploitation of polymetallic nodules has been researched since the 1970s. However no integrated system for polymetallic nodules harvesting, vertical transport and surface processing has ever reached industrial viability.

Blue Nodules will develop a new highly-automated and technologically sustainable deep sea mining system for harvesting of polymetallic nodules in the seabed up to TRL 6, with key features:
•An industrially viable polymetallic nodules business case, production capability of 2 million tonnes/year at water depths 3,000 – 6,000 metres;
•In-situ processing of the nodules, i.e. sediment separation and crushing/sizing;
•Excellent, intrinsic safe working conditions;
•Minimum environmental impact;
•Compliance with the relevant policies and regulations.

This technological capability will open the way to the next steps, i.e. system prototype demonstration in real environment (TRL7) and system completed and qualified (TRL8). A qualified system leads to:
EU technological leadership in designing, building and operating equipment for sustainable deep sea mining;
EU access to (critical) raw materials;
Enabling the EU to become a global player in the areas of sustainable exploration, mining and processing technologies and solutions.
Blue Nodules was kicked off in February 2016 and has now, July 2020, reached the end of the project. Significant for this last period has been the second Field Test and finishing all tasks, combining all findings and results in the last overcasting Deliverables. And despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, our cooperative and can-do spirit made us finish the project in time.

The focus in WP1 is the business case assessing the balance in the triangle: business case, environmental pressures and viable technology. In this period the Business Case was assessed with the latest data. An environmental impact assessment was conducted and a final assessment of the technological, economic and environmental feasibility was performed with success.

In WP2 the focus is on the subsea harvesting equipment. In 2019 the Apollo 2 vehicle was improved and made ready for the 2nd Field test in the bay of Malaga at 300m water depth to test the technical and environmental performance. With the new heading automation and improved positioning data, Apollo 2 was capable to drive any track and turn. Sound, plume and seafloor disturbance were successfully monitored as inputs for WP5. The jumper hose and the umbilical, with clamping system were successfully tested in period 2. In this period numerical modelling of the riser/jumper/vehicle combination, the sediment/water return and an update of the program for future prototype and full scale system was conducted.

In WP3 the fundamental principles of seabed processing including pickup, sediment separation, crushing and transport effects are researched. Achievements are the successful lab test of the prototype separation drum, the dynamic process flow sheet and the measurement and control system using Acoustic Emission technology and the observer philosophy for the slurry flow.

In WP4 the focus is on the mining vessel. Main results are the setup of the logistic chain, an extensive evaluation of metallurgical processing, reassessment of ship to ship transfer resulting in a dry alternative using conveyor belts and safety of ore transport evaluating the TML of nodules. All findings have been combined in an updated layout of the mining vessel and operations.

In WP5 a full scope inventory of environmental pressures arising from nodule collection and in-situ seabed, shipboard and onshore transport and processing is made to define critical design parameters contributing to minimizing environmental impacts. A main achievement is the measuring campaign during the Summer 2018 and 2019 Field tests and the lab test work. The results are used validate computer models for plume, noise and seafloor substrate alteration which help achieve evaluation and improvement of the environmental performance of mining equipment.

Dissemination of the results has been widespread through Field Test coverage by the BBC, German radio, the ISA side event, 7 peer reviewed articles and many public articles. As a final and lasting overview of the Blue Nodules achievements a movie was made, available on-line.
The strategic aim of Blue Nodules is to provide breakthrough (technological) solutions that will bring to reality an industrially viable and sustainable deep sea mining value chain for (critical) raw materials contained in polymetallic nodules up to TRL6. The integrated approach leads to an industrially viable system for deep sea polymetallic nodules mining, covering nodules harvesting, in-situ seafloor and surface processing, vertical transport and delivery to shore.

A major goal is to gain new insight to direct the development of new technological and operational solutions to reduce the mining impact. Environmental terms of reference will be involved right from the start of the technology development process. Minimizing the environmental impacts, specifically plume and impact on the seafloor is essential in combination with a high efficiency and production.

A particular challenge will be the dynamics of the synchronised movements of all connected mining systems. Umbilicals and inventive flexible jumper hoses are critical for the integrated system. Next, following Blue Nodules, this technological capability will open the way to system prototype demonstration in real environment (TRL7) and system completed and qualified (TRL8), and thus:
- EU access to (critical) raw materials, specifically for an electrified sustainable future;
- EU technological leadership in designing, building and operating equipment for sustainable deep sea mining;
- Enabling the EU to become a global player in the areas of sustainable exploration, mining and processing.

With the ISA well on its way to develop a legal framework for exploitation activities in The Area, it becomes clear that deep sea mining comes closer to reality, still adhering to the ISA principles of least environmental impact and for the benefit of humankind.

The EU has the opportunity to provide the world with the standards for both these principles by internally joining forces and creating the technology and knowledge base to set the high standards required and share the benefits with low and middle income countries.
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