The Indian Ocean ranks third in terms of size among the world’s five oceans. The seafloor of the Indian Ocean harbours an array of mineral deposits which can contribute to the growth of India’s economy.
Illustration by Team Geostrata
The Mineral industry is one among the two most commercially viable industries in the Blue Economy. The critical mineral on the seabed of the Indian Ocean can pave the way for a global energy transition in the future.
Two important mineral resources for the explorers in the Indian Ocean include Polymetallic nodules and polymetallic sulphides. Polymetallic nodules comprise nickel, cobalt, iron, and manganese.
They are golf-to-tennis ball-sized nodules formed over millions of years from the sediment of the seafloor. The nodules are, generally, found at the depth of four to five kilometres on vast plains and hence need to be lifted out to the surface.
Polymetallic sulphides require highly localised sites for their formation along hot springs in underwater volcanic ranges. Their mineral content is massive, perfectly defining the nomenclature. It contains copper, iron, zinc, silver, and gold.
The cold, heavy sea water that runs deep down into the earth’s crust receives heat from the magma and forms polymetallic sulphides. Due to buoyant force, when the heated water ascends to the surface, it precipitates metals from the seawater and concentrates the minerals in deposits beneath and on the seafloor.
In 1987, India was awarded the exclusive rights to explore polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean basin. Since then, India has established two mine sites that explore four million square miles.
These polymetallic massive sulphides have gained the attention of companies due to their gold content and greater copper composition. These nodules can give a boost to the high tech industries as it contains Rare Earth Elements and metals. The mineral is considered to be a great source for gold and copper.
Polymetallic nodules primarily consist of precipitated iron oxyhydroxides and manganese oxides. The metals such as cobalt, titanium, copper, nickel, and rare earth elements are gathered either by absorption or adsorption.
A unique characteristic which makes these nodules different from that of the terrestrial deposits is that the deep ocean nodules have multiple commodities in one deposit. For instance, nodules from the Clarion–Clipperton Zone contain Mn, Ni, Cu and Co.
However, their tendency of local concentration has posed a challenge in exploration missions and thus prevented them from becoming feasible commercially. The deposits on the seafloor are much smaller than those onshore.
Furthermore, deposits in the deep -sea have a much smaller concentration of rare earth elements. To develop the polymetallic nodule resource, the essential steps include precautionary approach, adaptive management and best practices which would not harm the environment.
INDIA’S DEEP OCEAN MISSION
In 2002, India signed an agreement with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and was allotted 75,000 sq km for exploration and exploitation termed the ‘Deep Ocean Mission‘. The allotted area is said to contain nearly 380 million tonnes of polymetallic nodules. One of the primary goals of this mission is to explore and extract polymetallic nodules.
Their extraction is significant as they can be used in electronic devices, smartphones, batteries and even solar panels. They are critical ingredients in the lithium-ion batteries used in most electric vehicles.
Under this mission, India has recently identified 11 potential sites for the exploration of hydrogen sulphide and a dedicated multi-purpose vessel to carry out detailed surveys.
Hydrothermal vents are the first in the list of search and exploration in this mission because they form unique ecosystems which comprise bacteria that are chemical synthesisers and use hydrogen sulphide as their energy source.
These vents discharge superheated water which contains vast amounts of minerals into their surroundings. When cooled, it forms towers containing copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc, gold, and rare earth elements. These minerals are essential to modern economies.
Union Minister Jitendra Singh also emphasised that the Deep Ocean Mission is a pillar of the Blue Economy initiative of the Central Government which would be a turning point in building India’s overall economy during the years to come.
The Deep Ocean Mission has been praised by the Secretary General of ISA, Michael W. Lodge. He also showed confidence that India has the potential to become a global leader in deep-sea mining. The Seabed of the Indian Ocean offers enough nickel and cobalt to meet India’s domestic demands. It can take India to the top in terms of critical minerals globally.
In January 2023, the National Institute of Ocean Technology announced that it would be sending a submersible to a depth of 6000 metres with three crew members onboard in a self-propelled vehicle named ‘Matsya’. Along with observation of unexplored deep sea areas, this mission would also involve the assessment of the underwater environment and ecology on the subject of the consequences of exploration and extraction of seabed resources.
This would be undertaken by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa.
On the top of the merit list of the institute is RV Gaveshani, a research vessel of NIO, which reached up to the depth of 4800 metres in the western Indian Ocean and successfully extracted polymetallic nodules. This achievement earned India the title of ‘Pioneer Investor’ by the ISA.
The Indian Ocean continues to be strategically important for India. The emerging Blue Economy initiative would give a new way towards increasing India’s geopolitical importance on the waters.
It would also help India meet the needs and demands for a green energy transition. A well-planned exploration and excavation can lead India towards reaching its goal of becoming self-sufficient in terms of the supply of critical minerals.