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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Blue Nodules (Breakthrough Solutions for the Sustainable Harvesting and Processing of Deep Sea Polymetallic Nodules)

Reporting period: 2017-08-01 to 2019-01-31

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 that can specifically be found in Polymetallic Nodules.

Polymetallic nodules occur on the seabed in most oceans around the world and contain large quantities (millions of tonnes) 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.

Objectives:
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.
Blue Nodules key features are:
• An industrially viable polymetallic nodules business case, a production capability of ca. 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). Successful completion of these steps leads to:

• EU technological leadership in designing, building and operating equipment for sustainable deep sea mining;
• EU access to (critical) raw materials, and in the longer term;
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, February 2019, reached the end of its second 18 month period. Significant for this period has been the close cooperation and flexibility of all partners to realise the Field Test, Lab Work and Desk Studies, despite the uncertainties of delays and licensing.

The focus in WP1 is the business case conducting studies that allow to assess how to balance the triangle between business case, environmental pressures and viable technology. In this period this includes the assessment of the he applicable rules, regulations and legislation, an overall risk assessment and a marketing study of valorising polymetallic nodules’ intermediate and final products. All this information is used to fill and run the numerical business models.

In WP2 the focus is on the subsea harvesting equipment. The vehicle Apollo 2 is built to combine the hydraulic collector and the propulsion system to test them for technical and environmental performance in the field test. Hydraulic and mechanical prototypes were first computer modelled and lab tested to solve the complex task of collecting nodules from a soft, sticky sediment with a high efficiency and minimal environmental impact. The first field test conducted in summer 2018 successfully proved the concept and the environmental monitoring, which will be improved in the Summer of 2019 Field test. Umbilical and jumper hose concepts for hyperbaric conditions are prototyped and tested, including a the dynamic effects on the system and a clamping device.

In WP3 the fundamental principles of seabed processing including pickup, sediment separation, crushing and transport effects are researched. Achievements are the determination of fraction characteristics in all phases from in-situ to dewatering on the vessel, through extensive lab work on CCZ samples. For subsea separation of sediments a prototype separation drum was build and initial tests show proof of concept.

In WP4 the focus is on surface processes. Main achievements include the development of the logistic chain, transfer of nodules at sea, the impact of offshore operations and an extensive evaluation of metallurgical processing, including environmental aspects.
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 in order to define critical design parameters contributing to minimizing environmental impacts. A main achievement is the measuring campaign during the Summer 2018 Field test and the lab test work. The results will be used to validate computer models for plume, noise and seafloor substrate alteration.
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 seafloor, intermediate and sea-surface sub-systems. Umbilical solutions and flexible jumper hoses with new materials are critical for the integrated system.

In the next steps following Blue Nodules this technological capability will open the way to system prototype demonstration in real environment (TRL7) and system completed and qualified (TRL8).

Successful completion of these next steps leads to:
• EU technological leadership in designing, building and operating equipment for sustainable deep sea mining;
• EU access to (critical) raw materials, specifically some that are crucial for battery production;
• Enabling the EU to become a global player in the areas of sustainable exploration, mining and processing technologies and solutions.
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. Basic principles that are crucial for exploitation of The Area are:

- Mineral extraction with the least environmental impact
- Exploitation of the Area 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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