Deep sea mining appears to be economically viable, with copper concentrations reportedly higher than at a number of other mines including the one in Chile that received notoriety in October when 33 trapped miners were rescued. (NY Times: Rare-Earth Minerals Hold Promise for Seabed Mining) Manganese nodules are manganese-iron based potato sized sedimentary rocks containing rare earth metals (between the sediment grains), elements which have a myriad of uses in everything from computers and lasers to rechargable batteries (electrodes). Another advantage deep sea miners have: Organizations like the International Seabed Authority which oversee environmental management, don't have regulatory authority over the mineral resources meaning companies can apply for exploration leases without worrying over whether their conservation practices adhere to another's strict guidelines (the vents are home to tubeworms and clams as well as microbes which feed off the sulfides). Interest in deep sea mining began in the 1980's (oil in the 1940's) and came as a result of a recognition that deep ocean ore contains high copper grades. One of the reasons it took so long for companies to begin mining projects is a lack of submersible, deep-water vehicles used in mapping and sampling. Advancements in autonomous/remote operated vehicles have since removed those barriers. (Yale:Deep-Sea Mining is Coming: Assessing the Potential Impacts by Erica Westly)
Some background information on ocean floor mining: Sea floor deposits can be found anywhere from the surf zone to a depth of 5,600 m. Interest in deep sea mining has experienced rapid growth evidenced by the rise of companies which develop underground mining technology (5-fold increase in Cape Town's IHC Marine and Mineral projects between 1998 and 2008). (Mining Weekly: Australia will be first to excel at mining ocean floor for gold, copper, top Canadian professor predicts) Oil drilling went offshore in the 1940's followed by diamonds many years later (De Beer's mines at a grade of 0.1 carats/sq meter off the coast of South Africa which is higher than average grades on land) and a brief period in the 1970's when gold was mined offshore from Alaska. Offshore mining presents great opportunities considering that 70.8% of the world's surface is covered by water and that for many countries, land offshore exceeds their dry land base. In terms of polymetallic mining, Toronto-based Nautilus isn't the only company engaged in exploration. There's also London's Neptune Minerals (licenses cover more than 278,000 km2 in New Zealand, PNG, Micronesia and Vanuatu) circa 1999 and Toronto-based private firm Marine Mining Corp. which searches off the coast of Ghana for gold circa 1993. Rio Tinto was one of the first mining companies to trial autonomous vehicles in 2007 (used in aluminum mining/smelting), since then they have implemented their use at various mining sites including the Port Dampier iron-ore facility where operations are conducted by huge remote controlled stackers and reclaimers. Also of note: Molybdenum is the 54th most abundant element in the Earth's crust and the 25th most abundant element in the oceans.
Nautilus is notable in that it is the world's first company to start a seafloor polymetallic mining project, the copper-gold project known as Solwara 1. The project, located 1600 meters below the Bismark Sea of Papua New Guinea could usher in a new era in deep sea mining. Nautilus owns many other projects as well with more than 600,000 km2 in possible liceneses in the pacific ocean between Tonga and Papua New Guinea (in Fiji it is joint ventured with Tech Resources).
Solwara 1 grades (indicated) 6.8% copper, 23 g/t for silver and 4.8 g/t for gold (out of 670,000 tonnes of massive sulfide deposits) but inferred resource grades jump to 7.5% copper, 37 g/t for silver and 7.2 g/t for gold with initial annual production estimated at 1.2 million tonnes (ore).In 2008 Ian Lipton of Golder Associates Pty Ltd estimated resources at: Copper: 870,000 lb indicated (1.3M lb inferred); Gold: 134,000 ounces indicated (300,000 oz inf); Silver: 643,000 ounces ind (1.55M oz inf); Zinc: 7.67M lb ind (22.93M lb inf). source: page 149 of 275 of Nataulus Solwara 1 Offshore Porduction System Definition and Cost Study June 21, 2010. About 60% of the total resource is inferred.Solwara 1 last received board approval in April 2011 just after a strategic partnership was formed with shipping company Harren & Partner. The joint venture provides Nautilus with a floating platform from which production machinery will be remotely operated, the platform will also serve as a production support vessel housing a dewatering plant/anchoring barges. There are 2 joint ventures overseeing construction and chartering of the vessel, one is 70% owned (other 30% by Petromin) by Nautulis, the other is under 45%. The production support vessel won't be delivered until the first half of 2013 just 2 quarters prior to commencement of production; The build program is 30 months long and started after Nautilus's board approved the project. The shipping joint venture cost a total of $127M of which only about $35-$40M will be Nautilus's responsibility ($75M is with Germany's Harren). The total capital cost of