Intelligent Energy

China's nuclear powered ocean floor mining station drills for oil, gold

China's nuclear powered ocean floor mining station drills for oil, gold

Posting in Design

Crew will mine, crush and process ore way down below ocean, working 2 months aboard luxury hotel-like mega craft. At deep sea depth, showers should have plenty of pressure! Any objections?

China wants to set up shop on the ocean floor, where it will be much closer to oil, minerals and metals. Above, tropical fish swim at the East Diamante volcano in the Pacific Mariana Arc region.

Somehow, I think someone will find something objectionable in this one.

But talk about thinking big. Or, pardon the pun, about deep thinking.

China has revealed plans to send a luxurious, hotel-like, nuclear propelled massive underwater mining station to the depths of the Pacific, where it will drill for oil, gold, copper, zinc, lead and other metals smack dab on the seabed.

According to the South China Morning Post (free 2-week registration required), the China Ship Scientific Research Center's mega-craft will house 33 "aquanauts" for 2 months at a time. It will not only drill for riches, but will also process the metals right there, way down below the ocean.

Race to the bottom. Who will get there first? China? Russia? U.S.? Japan? Maybe these bottlenose dolphins.

The paper reports:

Equipped with a nuclear reactor, the station would be able to support 33 crewmen for up to two months at a time.

"If a submersible were a plane, this station would be an aircraft carrier," Ma Xiangneng , a researcher with the project, told China National Radio. "The station will be an underwater palace, with showers, a living room and laboratories."

The designs show the station resembling a nuclear submarine, with two propeller fans at the tail. It would measure 60.2 metres long, 15.8 metres wide and 9.7 metres tall, weighing about 2,600 tonnes.

Like a space station, the deep-sea station would have multiple ports to support the docking of smaller manned or unmanned vessels.

Researchers such as Ma have said the station's main purpose would be deep-sea mining. With an underwater "mother ship" hovering above the station, located just below the surface and undisturbed by weather conditions, mining facilities could be built much more quickly and cheaply than if surface ships were used.

It's not clear from the story exactly how deep the floating roustabouts will plunge. It looks like anywhere from between 1,000 meters to 8,000 meters - nearly 5 miles. (At those depths, the showers in the luxury cabins should have plenty of pressure!).

The China Ship Scientific Research Center built a much smaller, manned submersible that reached a depth of over 7,000 meters in the Western Pacific's Marianas Trench last month, the paper notes. It seems that new titanium alloys are strong enough to withstand the forces there - alloys that did not exist when CSSRC started the project in the 1990s.

CSSRC hopes to build a prototype by 2015 that can handle a crew of 12 on an 18-day dive. Experts think the 33-crew, 2-month mega miner won't be ready until around 2030.

That should give Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior plenty of time to maneuver into place.

Photos: East Diamante volcano from Bob Embley, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Bottlenose dolphins from M. Henko, NOAA.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure