Robot Miners of the Deep

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

A combination of technological advances, from such unrelated fields as smartphones, sensors and robotics, is pushing deep-sea mining closer to reality.

The sea floor is particularly rich with precious metals—more so than land deposits. Seawater seeps through cracks in the volcanic rock on the ocean floor along the edges of the Earth’s tectonic plates. Underground, the water is heated by the nearby magma. It dissolves the metals in the rocks then is spewn out through hydrothermal vents in a liquid “smoke” of fine mineral particles. The particles react with the cold sea water and settle to the ocean floor, creating deposits, called seafloor massive sulfides, that can be 10 to 20 times higher grade in minerals than those on land.

The ocean floor also has iron-manganese nodules, which can also contain copper, nickel and cobalt, and cobalt-rich crusts. The main metals sought in deep-sea mining are copper, gold, nickel and cobalt.

The main hurdles to mining these deposits have been technological. “There’s no wifi, no cellular service,” says Justin Manley, president of Just Innovation, a Boston undersea technology and robotics-consulting firm. Sound waves travel much more slowly underwater than through air, “so you can’t get the same kind of bandwidth” for communicating with the robots, he says. Equipment needs protection from the corrosive saltwater; the cold, which can decrease batteries’ power; and the pressure, which increases by one atmosphere for every 10 meters of depth, he says.

“People can’t dive to 1,600 meters,” says Mike Johnson, chief executive of Nautilus Minerals Inc., a Toronto-based company that’s the first commercial enterprise to develop a seafloor production system for deep-sea mining of massive sulfide systems. Nautilus was granted a mining lease in 2011 by Papua New Guinea for an area called Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Mining hasn’t yet begun, as parts of the seafloor production system aren’t yet completed.

Now we can do everything robotically,” he says. “In the short time we’ve been going seriously, about 10 years, I’ve seen huge changes in the quality of the technology, particularly things like mapping. A lot of the technology for sonar is developed in the military then declassified and put on the market. Similarly, there have been huge advances with battery tech and computing power.”

ConstructionA standout technology for Nautilus is a heave-compensated crane. The crane is on the ship to lower machinery into the water. This crane can hold the machinery exactly, say, 10 meters off the sea floor in order to stabilize it during precision work.

“Computers on the crane talk to computers on the boat,” Mr. Johnson explains. “They figure out where the hook of the crane is in 3D space. As sea swells come through, the crane takes in and lets out wire to make sure the hook stays in the exact position relative to the sea floor. It’s amazing to see. The hook hardly moves—we can watch it on video—even though the boat goes up and down all the time.”

A special ship is being built for Nautilus for the operation. It will have a moon pool, or a hole in the middle. The equipment, such as the pump and riser system, descends through the hole so the vessel sits directly above the pump. The vessel has to stay in place on a moving sea—called dynamic positioning. The ship’s computers talk to satellites to engage the propeller systems so the vessel doesn’t move more than two meters from a point on the sea floor, he says.

The riser was designed for the oil and gas industry to clear out the cuttings from deep-sea drilling, rather than to let them dissipate on the ocean floor. Deep-sea mining won’t dig below the surface, but will remove mineral-rich formations on the sea floor. A large central pipe will ferry slurry with the mineral cuttings up to the vessel, while two smaller pipes on the sides will send the seawater back down.

The seawater is filtered to four microns, or about a quarter of the thickness of a hair, “so we don’t return much,” Mr. Johnson says. And, on the advice of marine scientists, the water isn’t simply dumped overboard because the pH and temperature of water at 1,600 meters has a different pH level and is far colder—about 2.6 degrees Celsius—than the 30-degree Celsius surface water.

Different kinds of robots do the work. Autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs—torpedo-shaped robots loaded with sensors—go back and forth over a selected area, like mowing a lawn, to detect changes in the water’s chemistry (temperature, pH, turbidity) that can signal the presence of mineral deposits, says Mr. Manley of Just Innovation.

AUVs, which also are called unmanned undersea vehicles or UUVs, can be specialized to gather images from an area of interest, to create detailed maps.

Then the work is turned over to remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, which remain tethered to the ship by a thick cord carrying electrical and fiber-optic cables. An operator on the ship, who watches the action via television screens, directs the ROVs. One kind of ROV, about the size of a small car, collects samples. The actual seafloor production tools that cut and collect the rock are massive—about 14 meters high and 16 meters long and weighing 300 tons, Mr. Johnson says. Because ROVs get electricity from the ship, they can stay underwater longer than the 18 hours of battery-operated AUVs.

With regulation and monitoring to ensure it’s done correctly, undersea mining could have a much smaller environmental impact than mining on land, Mr. Johnson says. The higher grade of mineralization and its concentration means less area is affected. The process has no tailings, because even the iron pyrite around the precious metals gets used. It doesn’t affect fresh water or human habitats.

“It’s why I like this project,” he adds.

It will have such a small footprint, compared to a mine on land. To stop a rush to the bottom we need good regulations and the system needs to be transparent.”

Perhaps technology will be the answer. Some underwater and surface robots are being developed that could stay in place for a year, Mr. Manley says, potentially offering a way for regulators to monitor mining sites remotely.

 

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

‘My Design’ webinar: how a typical furniture company turns ideas into reality?

By Lauriane
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Do you want to develop innovative and successful products?

Do you need to improve efficiencies and make the right decisions while reducing development time and costs? 

Dassault Systèmes has developed “My Design”, an integrated solution that expands your growth and helps increase your margin, making sure you develop a successful product that your consumers will love.

Click here to discover how a typical furniture company has rapidly developed a new office chair, with an integrated approach, from ideation to market launch. Imagine that all internal and external players can easily collaborate together.

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Marketing and Innovation

What if marketing and innovative departments could keep abreast of market needs by managing the free flow of ideas and providing multimedia dashboards?

With a few clicks, the Marketing Manager can easily consult design trends and blogs and monitor project status, all in real-time. Together with her colleagues, she can perform a detailed review of key trends, challenges and consumer expectations. With this visual information, managers can assign maturity levels bumping them up from proposal status, to concept through to validation.

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Creative Design

What if industrial designers and stylists used powerful and intuitive tools that allowed them to focus on innovation?

With CATIA, industrial designers can create freeform 3D sketches. It’s fast and easy to use allowing the user to explore more design scenarios in a short amount of time. He can transform ideas into a 3D reality while exploring detail design variations directly on 3D objects. Sketching combined with the intuitive act of painting demonstrates the power of realistic 3D modeling. Using subdivision-surface technology, the industrial designer can very quickly sculpt in 3D, while keeping surface curvature continuity under control.

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Decision Review

What if you could improve efficiencies and make the right decisions while reducing development time?

It’s time for important decisions to be made during a design-review session with the product manager, the CEO and the marketing manager. To ‘sell’ his ideas, the industrial designer is now using CATIA to present and promote projects with a high-end visualization and rendering solution.

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Concept Development

What if you could reduce development costs by enabling industrial designers and mechanical engineers to work in the same integrated environment?

Mechanical engineers can quickly design Sheet Metal parts by taking capitalized know-how and manufacturing constraints into account early in the design process. The engineer can intuitively manage the forming process directly in 3D and automatically generate flattened views from the 3D design part.

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Simulation and Validation

What if decision makers could harness accurate information to define the best consumer experience and make the right choices?

Integrating simulation in the design workflow improves quality and reduces the cost linked to physical testing. Now that the product is completely defined, all actors and decision makers can easily experience the final product in context and digital assets are ready to be re-used for marketing purposes.

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Conclusion

“My Design” is an integrated solution based on the 3DEXPERIENCE platform for Consumer Goods companies. It allows the free flow of ideas through social innovation and provides multimedia dashboards to keep abreast of market needs. With “My Design”, your company can develop innovative products faster and cheaper and deliver products consumers love.

Discover more

Watch ‘My Design’ Webinar: how to turn ideas into reality

Discover My Design Industry Solution Experience

Watch the video and Listen to Tomasz Bardzik, CTO of Nowy Styl Group

Find more about Dassault Systèmes’ in the Consumer Goods & Retail industry

Lower emissions on the high seas

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Container ship in the port of Rotterdam, Holland

Ships are the cheapest and most energy-efficient way to transport goods around the world. Cargo vessels on average produce 15-21 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of cargo carried a kilometer—compared with 540 grams of CO2 per tonne-kilometer for air freight. Yet, global shipping is so big that it accounts for 2.6% of global CO2 emissions. That would rank it sixth globally among nations, just behind Japan and ahead of Germany.

And CO2 isn’t the only pollutant. Ships burn heavy fuel oil, which is a waste product of the petroleum industry and the reason shipping is so cheap. This fuel releases a large amount of the pollutants sulfur dioxide, known as SOx, and nitrogen oxide, or NOx.

Sulfur is one of the main challenges for the industry, with regulations cutting the sulfur content of fuel to 0.1% since the start of 2015, compared with 1% previously, for the Baltic Sea, North Sea, U.S. and Canada coasts and around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The big game-changer in the industry at the moment is sulfur regulations,” says Simon Bennett, director of policy and external relations at the International Chamber of Shipping, an industry group based in London. A cap at 0.5% sulfur content, from 3.5%, is supposed to go global in 2020, with the tighter limits continuing in certain coastal areas, he says.

Aerial view of tankers and shipsOne low-hanging fruit in the quest for sustainability is slow steaming. When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, ship owners found it was more profitable to have all their ships busy at sea, even if half empty, rather than at berth, says Sotiris Raptis, shipping and aviation officer at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based nongovernmental agency that promotes sustainable transportation policy at the European Union and global levels.

In an attempt to prevent freight rates from falling due to depressed demand after the 2008 economic crisis and in order to reduce consumption of fuel—which makes up 70% of operating costs—ships slowed down. Fuel consumption is proportional to the cube of the ship’s speed, so at the upper limit, going a little bit faster requires a lot more fuel.

“You’re carrying the same freight weight the same distance. But your costs are much lower,” explains Bill Hemmings, director, aviation and shipping at Transport & Environment.

By extension, lower fuel consumption means lower emissions of CO2, NOx and SOx, Messrs. Hemmings and Raptis say. Shipping emissions fell 10% since 2008 thanks to slow steaming, and even though global trade has picked up again, slow steaming continues.

In addition, “there are a lot of incremental measures that ship operators are looking at,” says Paul Gilbert, lecturer in climate change, sustainability and project management at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “For example, weather routing, propeller arrangements, altering the trim, looking at the substructure of the hull, using different paints and microbubbles under the vessel.”

Other technologies involve bigger changes, such as wind power. That can be with fixed sails, Mr. Hemmings says, or kite-like sky sails for routes with favorable trade winds.

“Funnily enough,” he says, “shipping is the only mode of transport that came from a sustainable origin, and it is going to have to go back to that technology.”

Beached container shipMore advanced technology requires a bigger investment, but ship owners don’t get the benefits because they aren’t the ones paying for the fuel.

“The interests are split,” Mr. Raptis says. “The charterer”—a retailer or manufacturer—”rents the ship and pays for the fuel. The market doesn’t know how efficient ships are.”

In 2015, the EU adopted a requirement that, from 2018, ships calling at EU ports report their emissions, which will give charterers a way to compare individual ships.

Emissions aren’t the only sustainability issue in shipping. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires that new ships treat ballast water, which is pumped in to stabilize ships when they aren’t carrying cargo, says Mr. Bennett of the ICS. Treatment will keep invasive species from being transported in the water to foreign habitats around the world. Some existing ships will probably need to be retrofitted with very expensive treatment systems from next year or shortly after.

Ship recycling is another area of concern. The IMO adopted the Hong Kong Convention for ship recycling in 2009, but it hasn’t yet been ratified by the requisite 15 nations with a sufficient presence in world shipping and ship recycling. The EU stepped up pressure with a similar measure, calling for an inventory of hazardous materials, including their weight and where on the ship they are used, with some materials, such as asbestos, prohibited. The EU regulation will apply to EU-flagged ships as well as other ships calling at EU ports.

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock



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