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Using Robots to Mine Gold from the Ocean Floor

The gold mining industry is an active one – always investigating new ways to find gold, and even new places to look for gold. To those ends, Toronto-based mining company Nautilus Minerals is preparing to prospect and mine gold at the bottom of the Bismarck Sea.

To accomplish this, Nautilus is building a 227-meter-long production vessel that will be equipped to both deploy mining robots and process the ore that they recover from the seabed. Nautilus partnered with Soil Machine Dynamics – which supplies construction equipment for laying undersea cables, servicing offshore oil platforms, and other heavy-duty deep-sea work – to build three models of tractor-trailer-sized subsea mining robots that work as a team.

The “bulk cutter” looks like a jumbo-sized steam roller and uses counter-rotating drums studded with tungsten carbide teeth to chew through ore. The “auxiliary cutter” assists using a smaller studded drum on the end of a long, maneuverable arm – very similar in design to a construction excavator. The third robot collects all the slurry the other two create and feeds it to a pump that leads back to the production vessel, where it is dewatered before being transported to China for further processing.

Once construction of the production vessel is complete in 2018, Nautilus plans to deploy the robots at their “Solwara 1” mining site, almost 20 miles offshore from Papua New Guinea. There, they are expected to work for 30 months, hauling up an estimated 2.5 million metric tons of ore containing $1.5 billion worth of gold, silver, and copper. If Nautilus is successful in tapping this new source of gold, it could turn into an unprecedented gold rush for mining companies around the world.


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