Adeep-sea research vessel that will substantially add to India’s deep-sea research capabilities, including tsunami warnings, Sagar Nidhi, is all set to reach India by December, exactly a year behind schedule. S. Kathiroli, director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (Niot), Chennai, the government-owned research institute procuring the ship, said the ship would “definitely be here before Christmas”.
A senior scientist in the ministry of earth sciences who did not wish to be identified said the one-year delay was because the government wanted the ship to be customized. “Sagar Nidhi will also play an important role in our tsunami warning system, due to which we wanted increased precision on certain technological aspects,” the official said. “Sorting out those modifications, thus, led to some delay.”
A 10-tonne crane will be fixed on the ship to haul and repair data buoys, a crucial part of the tsunami-warning system, which are to go operational next month. The ship can provide assistance in times of emergency situations at sea, the official said. In addition, the vessel will serve as a technology demonstration vehicle—several technologies related to deep-sea mining which have been developed Niot require the ship’s assistance for testing. For instance, the ship will be able to launch and retrieve Niot-developed crawlers, underwater vehicles that trawl the seabed and map it, says Kathiroli. Highly accurate maps of the seabed are vital to mine polymetallic nodules, stone-like objects that contains metals such as manganese, nickel and cobalt.
Such maps also help in efforts to identify and extract gas hydrates, which are frozen, solid stores of methane, and potentially a massive source of natural gas. A substantial amount of international research is focused on trying to get the gas out of these hydrates, which melt when brought to the surface. “As of now, we borrow foreign ships to even extract these cores (hydrates),” said Kathiroli, “but Sagar Nidhi is equipped with systems to fish out these hydrates.”
Earth sciences ministry officials said the ship could be used for expeditions to Antarctica, and trips to the Arctic. The 104m Sagar Nidhi is being built in Genova, Italy, by ship-building group Fincantieri at a cost of Rs260 crore.
However, Gangadharan Nambiar, a marine sciences professor at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, said there is a huge gap between research activity and the extraction of commercial value from that research in India. “Our polymetallic nodule programme is over 20 years old but we woke up to it when the rest of the world had concluded that it wasn’t very economically feasible. I am not aware of the details of Sagar Nidhi, but commercializing exploratory activities is crucially important,” he said.