submerged trials deep sea mining

Nautilus Minerals Commence PNG Submerged Trials

At the recent Annual General Meeting of Nautilus Minerals Inc., Chairman Russell Debney, announced to gathered shareholders in Toronto that submerged trials for their completed Seafloor Production Tools (SPTs) had begun in Papua New Guinea (PNG).  This announcement came shortly after news that the Nautilus Launch and Recovery System (LARS) had arrived at the Mawei Shipyard in China, where construction of their Production Support Vessel (PSV) is still underway.

The success of these products will determine the viability of Solwara 1, Nautilus’ pioneering deep sea mining prospect in PNG’s Bismarck Sea.   Solwara 1 was the world’s first mining lease and corresponding environmental permit to explore polymetallic seafloor massive deposits, from which Nautilus is aiming to produce copper, gold and silver.  The operation will occur 30 km at sea in 1600m of water.

The much talked about Nautilus SPTs combine existing subsea trenching technology from the offshore oil and gas sector with rock cutting technologies used in land-based operations.  There are three distinct tools: the Auxiliary Cutter, the Bulk Cutter and the Collecting Machine.  All were designed and built at Soil Machine Dynamic’s facility in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.

These three robotic tools will work in unison, with the Auxiliary Cutter and the Bulk Cutter disaggregating rock on the seafloor and leaving cut material for collection by the Collecting Machine.  The two cutting machines excavate material by a continuous cutting process like that of coal, in which the Auxiliary Cutter preps rough terrain, creating benches for the Bulk Cutter to work on with higher cutting capacity.  The Collecting Machine then draws material (sand, gravel, silt) in a seawater slurry with internal pumps and pushes it through a flexible pipe to a Riser and Lifting System (RALS), which is still under production by primary contractor GE Oil and Gas.  Integration is anticipated at a later date with delivery of the riser transfer hoses targeted for the last quarter of 2017.

The submerged trials are taking place at a facility on Motukea Island, near Port Moresby in PNG, where the SPTs arrived this past April.  The trials are providing Nautilus a submerged demonstration of the fully assembled Tools and involve submerged testing of:

  1. Control systems operations and feedback
  2. Hydraulic functions
  3. Collection system functions
  4. Survey and visualization systems
submerged trials
The Bulk Cutter on site in Papua New Guinea. © Nautilus Minerals.

During the trial phase, all three SPTs will be deployed in an existing excavation on Motukea Island.  The Tools will not enter the ocean during this phase and a representative from Nautilus states that no discharge of cut material into the environment will occur.  The manufacturers from Soil Machine Dynamics are on site with Nautilus, and the team is training local Papua New Guineans to be the first operators of the equipment. Government officers from the PNG Mineral Resources Authority (MRA), the Conservation & Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), and both New Ireland and East New Britain Provincial Governments have been invited to participate in the tests as well, allowing local representation the opportunity to confirm that the mining equipment will operate in the way it has been designed and described via Nautilus outreach. These trials are estimated to put over PGK 7 million into the local economy.

Actual deployment of Nautilus’ SPTs will take place from the PSV using the newly arrived LARS, now at China’s Mawei shipyard. This LARS consists of very large A-frames, lift winches, hydraulic power units and deck control cabins, and was built by AXtech under the Nautilus’ fabrication contract with Soil Machine Dynamics.  Its key function will be to launch and stabilize the SPTs during deployment from the vessel down to the seafloor and during retrieval back up to the vessel.  The following animation demonstrates how it works:

“It is very exciting for us to see our equipment start to arrive at the Mawei shipyard in China,” stated Mike Johnston, Nautilus CEO. “The next step for the LARS will be its integration onto the Production Support Vessel, commencing June after import/customs clearances and minor re-assembly. The LARS’ installation marks the start of our equipment integration onto the PSV, and will be undertaken by Mawei shipyard personnel with support from Nautilus and the equipment vendors. The vessel build remains on schedule, and we look forward to seeing more of the equipment arrive for integration over the coming months.”

submerged trials
A recent photo of the Nautilus Production Support Vessel (PSV), under construction at the Mawei shipyard in China. © Nautilus Minerals.

The first steel for the construction of the PSV was cut in September 2015.  The vessel is being built by Fujian Mawei Shipbuilding Ltd. (FMSL), based in Fujian province in south-eastern China.  FMSL was contracted by Marine Assets Corporation (MAC), a marine solutions company based in Dubai specializing in the delivery of new build support vessels for the offshore industry.  MAC holds a charter agreement with Nautilus for the Solwara 1 Project in which MAC will own and operate the PSV, built under Nautilus’ specifications.

FMSL has awarded several other contracts for the PSV:

Package To Whom Comments
Engines & thrusters packages Rolls Royce Marine, Norway The order secures the main engines, azimuth and tunnel thrusters.
Cargo handling equipment Bedeschi SPA,  Italy The cargo handling equipment will be used to transfer the dewatered mined material into four storage holds in the PSV and then to recover the material from the storage holds where it will be transferred directly on to Handimax vessels for transhipment to our processing partner in China, Tongling Nonferrrous Metals Group Company, Limited.
Vessel deck mounted cranes MacGregor, Norway The order for the cranes consists of two knuckle boom units. Both cranes will be used to load stores, spares and support the maintenance of shipboard SPTs and other items of production equipment during mining operations. The larger crane will also be capable of deploying and recovering various items of mining equipment directly to and from the seafloor.
Electrics for the PSV Siemens International Trading (Shanghai) Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Siemens AG. This contract is for the entire electrical installation for the PSV.
Integrated control system Kongsberg Maritime, Norway This contract is for the vessel integrated control system (including dynamic positioning and navigation systems).


Additional equipment will continue to arrive for integration in Mawei over coming months, with the launch of the PSV targeted for early 2018.  Nautilus maintains that, subject to financing, commencement of operations at the Solwara 1 project site will begin in the first quarter of 2019.

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