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Mining & Energy

After orbiting space lab, China wants an undersea lab for deep sea mining

Jialong Submersible

Imagine, for a moment, that the year is 2034, and China has just declared ownership of a massive copper mine deep below the surface of the Western Pacific.

Although the site was first discovered and repeatedly explored by robotic submersibles from other countries, China is the first to send a manned vessel to the depths.

Living and working for two months in a nuclear-powered deep-sea station, at a depth of about 1,000 metres, 33 Chinese “aquanauts” finish construction of a sophisticated mining facility atop the considerable mineral deposit. The switch is flicked, and rocks on the ocean floor begin to be pulverised – their copper-rich remains pumped to a floating platform above that is the size of a small city, where a fleet of empty cargo ships bearing China’s flag await.

This may be just science fiction today, but it’s all part of China’s latest blueprint for construction of an elaborate facility on the ocean floor, in line with the nation’s ambitious plans for deep-sea exploration.

At the 15th China Beijing International Hi-Tech Expo in May, the China Ship Scientific Research Centre, which built the Jiaolong manned submersible that reached a depth of more than 7,000 metres in the Western Pacific’s Marianas Trench last month, revealed the official design of a mobile deep-sea station that is to be used in future ocean exploration.

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.

A smaller prototype, able to carry 12 crewmen on an 18-day dive, is expected to be finished by 2015. No completion date was given for the larger station, but some experts think it will be finished by 2030.

It’s a risky endeavour, and the Chinese scientists involved conceded that they were aiming for operations at depths where more developed countries had failed. During the cold war, the Soviet Union deployed underwater habitats for military research, and the US built three so-called Sealabs for experiments that included testing the effects of living in an isolated environment.

These facilities all operated in much shallower waters, and they were discontinued relatively quickly after failing to prove their worth. France also tinkered with such deep-sea stations in the 1960s, with its series of Continental Shelf stations.

The Aquarius Reef Base, owned by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is currently the world’s only undersea research station. It operates at a depth of just over 19 metres.

“We are still years behind developed countries and trying to catch up,” Ma said.

But as it is considered the “world’s factory” at a time when its resources are dwindling on land, China has come under more pressure than deep-sea forerunners to exploit ocean resources. The country imported more than 250 million tonnes of oil last year, or more than 5 million barrels a day. Official figures show that it is only a matter of time before China surpasses the US to become the biggest oil consumer. And Chinese companies are consuming ores from all over the globe as they flood the world with products ranging from toys to heavy machinery.

As prices for energy and raw materials continue to rise, Chinese officials and companies are eager to explore the untapped resources at the bottom of the world’s oceans. The Russians have given China a big hand in this regard.

A designer of the Jiaolong said that when the project was started in the late 1990s, no factory in China could produce the titanium alloy needed to withstand the enormous pressure found at depths of 8,000 metres. So the hull was made at a military plant in Russia. Chinese scientists and engineers then studied the materials for years to be able to replicate them.

The designer, who wished to remain unnamed, said future generations of Chinese submersibles and the planned station would utilise a made-in-China titanium alloy.

Although Beijing frequently says its deep-sea programme is for civilian purposes, there has been no denial of military involvement. Since 2002, the deep-sea project has been financed by the 863 Programme, a government effort that is widely known to focus on military needs.

The China Ship Scientific Research Centre also operates under the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, one of the country’s largest builders of naval vessels.

Possible military overtones aside, sending people to such risky depths has also sparked debate. Some experts argue that it will be neither economical nor safe for people to be mining at depths of several thousand metres underwater.

But Professor Fan Dejiang , a deep-sea geologist with the Ocean University of China, said that technological advancements would eventually allow deep-sea mines to be mostly automated.

“I think a deep-sea station probably has more military applications than economic value,” he said. “You don’t send miners to a place a million times more deadly than coal pits.”

But Fan said that manned underwater activities would play a crucial role in finding and locating minerals, as well as in setting up mining facilities and repairing broken pipelines.

Analysts also note that China has to overcome several hurdles in order to tap into the treasures of the sea. Constructing a massive, floating mining facility in the middle of the ocean will require technology that has not yet been developed, such as for anchoring and power generation. But the biggest risk might be the environmental damage that such mining could cause.

“We know little about the oceans, not to mention the regions at depths of several thousand metres,” Fan said. “Many creatures have lived on the deep-sea floor undisturbed for millions of years.

“Once we start mining and drilling for oil, we can cause damage that no technology can repair.”

Stephen Chen
South China Morning Post


About chankaiyee2

Author of the book "Tiananmen's Tremendous Achievements" about how with the help of Tiananmen Protests, talented scholars with moral integrity seized power in the Party and state and brought prosperity to China. The second edition of the book will be published within a few days to mark the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Protests All the parts in the first edition remain in the second edition with a few changes due to information available later and better understanding. There are also some changes for improvements of style. The new parts are Chapters 12-19 on events in China after the first edition was published: The fierce power struggle for succession between reformists and conservatives; Xi Jinping winning all elders’ support during his mysterious disappearance for 2 weeks in early September, 2012; and Xi Jinping Cyclone. Chan Kai Yee's new book: SPACE ERA STRATEGY: The Way China Beats The US An eye-opening book that tells the truth how the US is losing to China. The US is losing as it adopts the outdated strategy of Air-Sea Battle while China adopts the space era strategy to pursue integrated space and air capabilities: It is losing due to its diplomacy that has given rise to Russian-Chinese alliance. US outdated strategy has enabled China to catch up and surpass the US in key weapons: Hypersonic weapons (HGV) that Pentagon regards as the weapon that will dominate the world in the future. Aerospaceplane in China’s development of space-air bomber that can engage enemy anywhere in the world within an hour and destroy an entire aircraft carrier battle group within minutes. Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, anti-ASAT weapons, stealth aircrafts, drones, AEW&C, etc. The book gives detailed descriptions of China’s weapon development based on information mainly from Chinese sources that the author monitors closely. U.S. Must Not Be Beaten by China! China is not a democracy. Its political system cannot prevent the emergence of a despotic leader or stop such a leader when he begins to bring disasters to people. A few decades ago, Mao Zedong, the worst tyrant in world history did emerge and bring disasters to Chinese people. He wanted to fight a nuclear war to replace capitalism with communism but could not bring nuclear holocaust to world people as China was too weak and poor at that time. If a despot like Mao Zedong emerges when China has surpassed the US in military strength, world people will suffer the misery experienced by Chinese people in Mao era. China surpassing the US in GDP is not something to worry about as China has the heavy burden to satisfy its huge population, but China surpassing the US in military strength will be world people’s greatest concern if China remains an autocracy. US people are of much better quality than Chinese people. What they lack is a wise leader to adopt the correct strategy and diplomacy and the creative ways to use its resources in developing its military capabilities. I hope that with the emergence of a great leader, the US can put an end to its decline and remain number one in the world. China, US, space era strategy, air-sea battle, space-air bomber, arms race, weapon development, chan kai yee


13 thoughts on “After orbiting space lab, China wants an undersea lab for deep sea mining

  1. “America had justice done” by killing a defenceless diabetic sick old semi-cripple in the dead of night?

    In my country (NZ) justice is currently represented by a formal trial in a court of Law—not by sending a hit-team of professional assassins at a politician’s whim (and then frantically lying about it, readjusting the ‘official’ story to every shift in the breeze). No American is safe either, but they don’t seem to realise that. Yet.

    Justice is administered by a formal system in accordance with strict rules and objective law, not by a bunch of hired organic automatons (who probably got Cong Meds of Hon for their ‘heroics’).


    Posted by Argus | July 10, 2012, 5:10 am
    • Thank you for using this forum to express your opinions.

      In my opinion, American legal system is good while Bin Laden deserved the death penalty for the lives of thousands people no matter whether he was in poor health or defenseless.

      I have just had to deal with the opinion that Mao shall not be accused for the death of stavation of tens of millions of people caused by his despotism. The ground is that he did not cause the death on purpose. However, he had been warned of the disasters, but instead of heeding the opposition to his disasterous ways, he persecuted those who opposed his ways, three millions of them, mostly honest and brave people, including the talented general who defeated America’s top general McArther in Korea. Do you think that a tyrant shall not be held responsible for the death cause by his tyranny?

      I think that as America is now fighting a war against terrorists, its domestic law does not apply to foreign terrorists..

      I would like to hear your furter views


      Posted by chankaiyee2 | July 10, 2012, 9:48 am
      • Apologies for digressing … your post raises many questions. Doubtlessly wars will be fought over the seabed resources, and doubtlessly the best at it (warfare) will win control of those resources. As ever, ‘might is right’. No?

        If you read me at all you’ll know that I’m very firmly of the opinion that politicians and so-called Leaders anywhere/everywhere should (must!) be held fully responsible for their actions.
        And justice should come not from kangaroo courts but only from proper (moral, objective, lawful, ethical) legal systems. Doesn’t happen, as the claimed fate of Bin Laden demonstrates.

        I think you hold America in too high a regard—they do not practise what they appear to preach. Please look at what they actually do, not at what they say. Judge them by their deeds, not their words.

        And ‘terrorist’ is a simple catch-all label that can be applied to anyone, anywhere—increasingly a death sentence with no rights of appeal. Been done before, all a tyrant need do is declare ‘an enemy of the People’ and he becomes fair game. The original meaning of the word ‘outlaw’ was that the person so designated was outside the protection of the law (ergo, fair game).

        George Bush, Obama, and their ilk should (repeat) should be held responsible for their tyranny.
        They won’t be, of course, unless someone militarily stronger can do it (properly in a court of Law); showing again that ‘might makes right’.


        Posted by Argus | July 10, 2012, 12:40 pm
  2. I do not think that there shall be a war for seabed resources. The United Nations may find a way to resolve disputes over seabed resources when there are such disputes. I only posted a piece of news by South China Morning Post reporter Stephen Chen. What I want is to keep people informed of what is happening in China.

    I think that what China is doing may initiate a competition in developing deep sea technology. Those who have the technology will each exploit the resources they have found separately until there is a dispute over the right to exploit the resources at the same location. Such dispute will not emerge at first as the parties may find a way to cooperate in exploiting the resources before any third country has the capability to do the same. When quite a few countries have such technology, the United Nations has to find a way out peacefully.

    I am sorry that I mistook you as one who holds similar view to those who defended Mao. Since you believe that the “so-called Leaders anywhere/everywhere should (must!) be held fully responsible for their actions”, you certainly do not want to defend Bin Laden. My impression then is that you agree Bin Laden must(!) be punished for the massacre of thousands innocent people, but you hold that proper legal procedures shall be followed in killing him.

    However, in a war it is often impossible to follow the legal procedures designed for peacetime. Bin Laden had killed lots of innocent people and was planning to kill more. Leaving him at large would have been a serious danger for American people. Moreover, there was great risk in capturing him and bringing him out of a country that was secretly protecting him. Killing him if he could not be captured and brought to the US was a better choice under the circumstances. Obama has the duties to protect American people.

    Let’s be specific, I said American legal system was good. Certainly, there is much room for improvement, but it is good. That does not meen everything is good in America.

    Regarding what American presidents have done, let’s also be specific. What I have said is that killing Bin Laden is justified and American legal system is good (instead of perfect). As for American presidents’ other actions and deeds, I have said nothing. If you want my opinion, I shall first make clear that I am sorry that being a Chinese, I do not know America very well. Second, we have to discuss it case by case.

    Thank you for your opinions.


    Posted by chankaiyee2 | July 11, 2012, 7:25 am
    • Case-by-case would take forever, more arising every day than can be considered individually. So we must look at trends—at the flow of the river rather than every ripple and eddy.

      And we must always do “root cause” analysis—not simply look at an event we disagree with and label it evil (it may well be evil) but ‘Why did this happen?’ to which the answer—often the glib response—is simply “Because!” as if that’s the end of it. So we keep asking “Why?” at every because until we reach that final undismissable Root Cause.

      The root cause is the true foundation of the problem. If you apply this technique you’ll quickly get to some surprising conclusions. The advice I was given years ago: “Always ask “Why” at least five times … ” was sound and has helped me immensely.


      Posted by Argus | July 11, 2012, 2:33 pm
      • Thank you for your reply. The “root cause” analysis approach is a good one, but I lack knowledge about the US to do that. I now begin to pay more attention to developments in the US and will try to use your approach.


        Posted by chankaiyee2 | July 12, 2012, 8:34 am


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