What are polymetallic nodules? What is their significance and distribution? Critically analyse India’s efforts to extract these. (250 W/15 M)

Mentors Comment:

Once again straightforward but lengthy question. The demands of the question are clear. Define polymetallic nodules, its distribution, its significance and India’s efforts to extract polymetallic nodules.

Hence to score better, use flowcharts to save space and time.

The structure of the answer will be in the requirements of the question as defined above. The first three parts should make half of the answer and discussion on India and Polymetallic Nodules should form the rest half of the answer.

The demand of the last part is to critically analyse India’s efforts therefore towards the end do mention the challenges that India will have to face in the pursuit of extraction of these Polymetallic Nodules. Give some suggestions too.

Model Answer:

Polymetallic nodules, also known as manganese nodules, are potato-shaped, largely porous nodules found in abundance carpeting the sea floor of world oceans in deep sea. Besides manganese and iron, they contain nickel, copper, cobalt, lead etc which are of economic and strategic importance. Formed by slow precipitation of the metallic components from seawater. This is thought to produce nodules with similar iron and manganese content and a relatively high grade of nickel, copper and cobalt.

Distribution:

  • First discovered in 19th century in the Kara Sea, in the Arctic Ocean off Siberia, they were found to occur in most oceans of the world.
  • However, nodules of economic interest are more localized.
  • Three areas have been selected by industrial explorers: the centre of the north central Pacific Ocean, the Peru Basin in the south-east Pacific Ocean and the centre of the north Indian Ocean.
  • They can occur at any depth, but the highest concentrations have been found between 4,000 and 6,000m.

Significance of Polymetallic Nodules:

  • They contain Rare Earth Elements and metals which are important to high-tech industries.
  • The amount of copper contained in the CCZ nodules is estimated to be about 20% of that held in global land-based reserves.
  • These Rare earth minerals are considered as the great source of valuable minerals such as gold, silver and zinc.

India and Polymetallic Nodules:

  • India is the first country to have received the status of a pioneer investor in 1987 and was allocated an exclusive area in Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) by UN for exploration and utilization of nodules
  • India had signed a 15 year contract for exploration of Polymetallic Nodules in CIOB with the International Seabed Authority in 2002.
  • In 2016, India got extension of this contract upto 2022.
  • India is implementing a long–term programme on exploration and utilization of Polymetallic Nodules (Polymetallic Nodules programme) through Ministry of Earth Sciences.

Significance for India:

  • India is presently having an area of 75,000 square km, located about 1600 km away from her southern tip. Polymetallic nodules resource potential in this site is 380 million tonnes.
  • This would open new opportunities for resources of commercial and strategic value.
  • It is envisaged that 10% of recovery of that large reserve can meet the energy requirement of India for the next 100 years.
  • India is entirely dependent on imports to meet its requirements of cobalt, which is the most strategic of the three metals (cobalt, copper and nickel).
  • As for copper and nickel, India is in a precarious position.
  • Empowerment of coastal communities and attaining greater social and economic inclusion by providing Employment opportunities, skill-sets and capacities.
  • Providing a boost to coastal and national economies and development of blue economy.
  • Promoting entrepreneurship in new areas of economic activity and new development in electronics industry.
  • Presently, China is controlling more than 95% of rare earth metals.
  • The exploration by India will nullify the increasing influence of China.
  • It will strengthen the bilateral relationship of India with Japan, Germany and South Korea.
  • The recent acquisition of India’s deep-sea exploration ship ‘Samudra Ratnakar’ by the Geological Survey of India is a significant development in this regard.

Challenges:

  • The extraction of metals from the polymetallic nodules lying at the deep ocean floor is not yet found to be economically viable at this stage.
  • The specialized drills and extraction-technology that would be required pulling out the metals from the deep sea would develop a major technical challenge.
  • The deep sea mining without holistic approach may cause a drastic disturbance and imbalance in the aquatic ecosystem
  • Deep ocean is the largest habitat on earth which is also the world as vibrant and rich as the one outside. It is considered as the last resources to depend on. Therefore any technological intervention here could alter the ecosystem.
  • The deep sea mining may distract the keystone and the foundation species.

Way Forward:

  • India needs to partner with private sector and build conducive policy and legal framework to make the programme a success.
  • Proper survey and exploration, environmental studies, technology development in mining and extractive metallurgy are needed.
  • Rigorous experiments should be conducted to study the potential impacts of deep-seabed mining because it is no less than space exploration.
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