May 24, 2011      

When it comes to mining our planet for vital minerals and ores, we’ve only scratched the surface. Literally. Untold trillions of dollars’ worth of resources await beneath the ocean floor. Until now, extracting them economically was impossible. Robotics changes the equation, however. And Toronto-based Nautilus Minerals Inc. is one of just a handful of companies with a solid approach to unearthing these treasures.

The Nautilus business plan calls for drilling into the ocean floor to identify areas likely to be rich in minerals, using the same tried-and-true technologies as the oil and gas industry. Robots enter the picture in a critical way once full-scale mining begins. First, tractor-like robots ply the ocean floor to loosen the ore-rich material. A robotic collecting machine follows soon after, scooping up the material and combining it with sea water to form a slurry. The slurry is pumped to a barge-like refining operation set up on the surface for processing.

Nautilus has formulated plans to make sure its operations won’t do permanent harm to the ocean-floor environment. This January, the company won a 20-year lease from the government of Papua New Guinea, site of its first planned project, Solwara1, located about 30 kilometers off the equatorial island’s coast, and a bone-crushing 1,600 meters below the surface.

The company says it will be able to extract 80,000 tons of copper and 150,000 to 200,000 ounces of gold annually from the site when it’s fully operational. With gold selling recently for $1,433 per ounce, the low estimate on that metal alone would come in well north of $200 million annually.

Solawara1 is only the first of several mining sites Nautilus hopes to explore. Others are located in Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and New Zealand. With 71 percent of the earth’s surface covered by oceans, there will be plenty of spots for competitors. And in fact, several are already emerging.

China, which has moved aggressively throughout the world to secure the raw materials needed to sustain its economy, has plans to explore the seabeds off Madagascar. Also, Korea Coal Corp. is working with the Korea Institute of Machinery & Materials and some private companies to develop sea-bottom-mining robots. Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy likewise wants to use robots to extract the rare earth elements that are vital to its electronics industries.

Heightened interest by these three Asian economic giants suggests that the race to exploit the ocean floor could wind up being more important than the U.S.-U.S.S.R.’s race to the moon. Anyone who wants a piece of the action can get in for just over $3, the recent price of Nautilus Minerals’ stock, which trades on the Toronto exchange.