Friday, January 21, 2011

A Primer On Underground Mining

There may be doubts about Nautilis Mining securing funding for its proposed underwater mine, which management hopes to commence in 2013, but its Solwara 1 resource in the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea seems technically ready to go. The technology the engineers plan to use is as yet unproven, but the article discussing how they plan to do it sketches out the equipment they're commissioning.
Mining at depths of about 1600 meters (5250 feet) can only be done by remotely controlled vehicles, but drawing on conventional land-based mining technologies and established marine oil & gas technologies, Nautilus has the cutting, gathering and lifting of ore to the surface covered in a series of remarkably familiar looking machines...
The three main workhorse are an Auxiliary Cutter, a Bulk Cutter and the Collector to pump up the resulting slurry of ore.
The total capital cost for the system to deliver de-watered ore to the concentrator facility to be built at the nearby port of Rabaul is US $383 million....

The biggest risk to the project is probably achieving the 1.35 million tons per annum production rate with what are still unproven technologies, albeit extensions of known techniques. One area of concern is erosion and reliability of the sea floor-lifting pump and riser pipes. Tests are ongoing on the pump and bends in the riser system are designed to be sacrificial as erosion rates are expected to be high.

The sea floor area to be mined in this first stage of Solwara 1 is small, but with 18 other identified locations across the Bismarck Sea, Nautilus has a huge potential upside if it can bring this first project to a commercial success.
It's really be something if Nautilis could get an underwater mine working. At the very least, the stockbrokers' tour would be an unusual excursion.

Sadly, as with all exploration projects, securing the capital will be the main barrier. Should there be an all-out bubble in gold which survives 'til 2013, the banks will likely be falling all over themselves to finance new projects. (That's what happened around 1979-'80.) If gold's bull market ends in '13, also sad to say, Nautilis' project will go down in history as a gold-bubble white elephant even if it still ekes out a profit.

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