Plumbing the depths

From studying biodiversity to developing technology to extract polymetallic nodules from the earth’s watery depths, scientists will pan a vast area, as part of the Rs 10,000 crore project.
Plumbing the depths

Chennai

After the outer space, the deep ocean is the next frontier to conquer for Indian scientists, as the Ministry of Earth Sciences will be exploring various facets of the deep ocean. From studying biodiversity to developing technology to extract polymetallic nodules from the earth’s watery depths, scientists will pan a vast area, as part of the Rs 10,000 crore project. 
The Deep Ocean Mission will include research and development in the areas of ocean energy, wave energy, tidal energy, ocean thermal energy, offshore wind energy, freshwater by low temperature thermal desalination, oil and gas exploration, polymetallic manganese nodules extractions, gas hydrates exploration, polymetallic hydrothermal sulphides and cobalt crust studies, and also focus on ocean observations for weather forecast, disaster management, meteorology-ocean parameters, tsunami detection, ocean circulation and climate predictions. The Ministry of Earth Sciences is currently preparing a detailed project report (DPR) for the mission, which will be an inter-ministerial effort, with the city-based National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) as the nodal agency. 
M Rajeevan, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, said, “There has been a lot of work in the country on ocean research and developing technology. We need to accelerate this by involving other ministries such as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and others, to work on developing technology for ocean research. This is the first time such a national mission is done by various ministries, on such a large scale. Though NIOT is the implementing agency, there are many stakeholders and one round of inter-ministry meeting has been conducted. Our project estimation is Rs 10,000 crore but the figure has not been finalised yet. The mission will be launched in March 2018,” he said. 
NIOT AND MINING TECHNOLOGY 
An important aspect of the mission would be to develop technology for exploration of polymetallic manganese nodules. National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) initiated the program on polymetallic nodules, collecting the first sample from the Arabian Sea on January 26, 1981, aboard the first research vessel Gaveshani. An area of 150,000 sq km was allocated to the country with exclusive rights under the UN Law of the sea. Based on resource evaluation by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), India has now retained an area of 75,000 sq km with an estimated resource of about 100 million tonnes of strategic metals such copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and iron. A First Generation Mine-site (FGM) with an area of 18,000 sq km, has been identified. 
NIOT has taken up the development of mining technology. NIOT has been working on a mining concept where a crawler based mining machine collects, crushes and pumps nodules to the mother ship, using a positive displacement pump through a flexible riser system. Satheesh C Shenoi, Director, NIOT, said that India has been granted a five-year extension by ISA. “We had a 15-year licence, which expired recently and was renewed. In the next five years, we need to demonstrate the mining technology,” said the director. Summarising their progress, Shenoi said, “We have tested the crawler, which will go to the ocean floor and collect the nodules. We have developed and tested the soil tester, which will determine if the soil can bear the weight of the 12-ton crawler, which will be lowered from the ship. This will be done using a conducting cable, which can also give commands and carry data. We are working on various components of the mining technology, which will be used in the location, identified in the Central Indian Oceanm region, 6,000 km from the nation and 6,000 meters below the sea.” 
For deep ocean research, developing technology is vital and time consuming. “NIOT has developed a motor operated submersible that can conduct research in the deep ocean. We have a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), which can be used easily. We are developing a manned submersible, of which there are only four or five in the entire world,” said Shenoi. 
Ocean biodiversity is another focal area for the mission. “We are planning to set up a national institute of ocean biotechnology, primarily by DBT. In addition, deep sea fisheries is an unexplored area. We are also working on desalination plants - we have three such plants, while six more are in the pipeline,” said Rajeevan. 
While Blue economy, which revolves around utilising ocean resources for increasing livelihoods and economic gains, is being promoted by the central government, sustainability should also be kept in mind, said experts. 
Oceanography expert MA Atmanand said, “The recovery feature of the ocean should also be taken into account. We need to conserve 10 per cent of the ocean, while trying to bring it back to the original state or refrain from worsening it. This can influence climate change. We need to work towards rebuilding fish stock, but sustainable fisheries is also important.”
OCEAN  OF OPPORTUNITIES 
  • With a coastline of 7,500 km and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): 2.02 million sq km, researchers are exploring the possibility of discovering polymetallic nodules, the commercial mining of which is banned.
  • India was the first country in the world to  have been given the Pioneer Area for exploration of deep-sea mineral viz. Polymetallic nodules in the Central  Indian Ocean Basin in 1987.
  • Polymetallic nodules have economically valuable  metals such as copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese 
  • 150,000 sq km was allocated to  the country with exclusive  rights under the UN  Law of the Sea
  • Over 380 million tons of nodules present in the retained Indian Pioneer area 
  • A First Generation  Mine-site (FGM)  with an area of 18,000 sq km has been identified
  • Currently, mining of polymetallic nodules is not allowed 

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