India plans to develop vessels to explore ocean floor for resources

India plans to develop vessels to explore ocean floor for resources

New Delhi: India plans to spend 500 crore in developing a series of specialized vessels capable of scouring deep ocean floors for minerals, metals and gas hydrates.

Several South Asian nations, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India, have laid claim to large but little explored swathes of the Indian Ocean for exclusive mining rights. A United Nations (UN) body is expected to decide on this later this decade.

Experts say India’s limited fossil fuel resources made it necessary for the nation to develop deep-sea technological capabilities within the decade.

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“We have to adequately prepare ourselves with such technology for in the future countries are unlikely to share such know-how," said a Planning Commission official, who did not want to be identified. “By the time the UN decides, we should have at least three-to-five indigenously developed vehicles that can explore the sea at different depths."

An official in the science and technology ministry, who also did not want to be identified, confirmed the programme.

Key untapped mineral resources in the sea include polymetallic nodules and cobalt-rich manganese crust. The nodules, which resemble coal, contain copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese and are viewed as potential resources to meet increasing global demand for these metals. Gas hydrates are crystalline solids consisting of gas molecules, usually methane, each surrounded by a cage of water molecules, akin to ice.

According to preliminary government estimates, India has access to about 0.5 million sq. km in the Indian Ocean, which could be worth about 5,000 crore in resources.

Currently only Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology has developed a robotic crawler that can plunge to 5,000m and be remote-controlled by ship to scour precious metals and minerals.

Only four other countries— China, France, the US and Russia—have robotic vehicles that plumb those depths.

Although several private companies—mostly American—have developed robotic vehicles for similar purposes, renting them is enormously expensive.

“Along with the cost of the ship and man-days spent in launching the vehicle, it can work out to several lakhs a day," said Ananda Ramadoss, a senior researcher at the institute and a key scientist associated with developing the robotic vehicle.

Bharath Rajeshwar, a defence analyst who specializes in international mining agreements, said it was high time India embarked on a strategic, technology programme to tap the ocean’s wealth.

“We can’t afford to go at the same pace as India’s space programme. The race for precious metals is going to get more vicious over the decade with a rise in electronics hardware," said Rajeshwar. “India can’t afford to be an importer (of metals) forever."

Graphic by Yogesh Kumar/Mint