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The Mining Industry’s Next Frontier Is Deep, Deep Under the Sea


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The nodules have been growing, in utter blackness and near-total silence, for millions of years. Each one started as a fragment of something else—a tiny fossil, a scrap of basalt, a shark’s tooth—that drifted down to the plain at the very bottom of the ocean. In the lugubrious unfolding of geologic time, specks of waterborne nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese slowly accreted onto them. By now, trillions lie half-buried in the sediment carpeting the ocean floor.

One March day in 1873, some of these subaqueous artifacts were dragged for the first time into sunlight. Sailors aboard the HMS Challenger, a former British warship retrofitted into a floating research lab, dredged a net along the sea bottom, hauled it up, and dumped the dripping sediment onto the wooden deck. As the expedition’s scientists, in long trousers and shirtsleeves, eagerly sifted through the mud and muck, they noted the many “peculiar black oval bodies” that they soon determined were concretions of valuable minerals. A fascinating discovery, but it would be almost a century before the world began…

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