LONDON — Lockheed Martin is taking the plunge into deep sea mining in a deal that will see the company begin exploring for minerals — including rare-earth varieties — in the Pacific.
UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the British arm of Lockheed Martin, said Thursday that it has obtained a license to prospect for high-value minerals in a 58,000-square-kilometer area of the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico.
It is the second time in 24 hours that Lockheed Martin has looked outside its traditional defense and aerospace focus to retain and grow its activities .
On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin in the U.S. announced it was using its know-how in the manufacture of Space Shuttle external tanks to meet the growing demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage and transportation. The company said it already had obtained initial orders to build cryogenic tanks.
British Prime Minister David Cameron will unveil the mineral-extraction project today at a seabed mining environmental workshop here involving scientists and potential suppliers.
The U.K. company said mining polymetallic nodules from the seabed could contribute around 40 billion pounds to the U.K. national economy over a 30-year period and could provide opportunities for supply-chain companies here that already have North Sea oil and gas expertise.
“We are offering British companies, research institutions and academia exciting opportunities to become involved in this cutting-edge business,” Stephen Ball, Lockheed Martin’s chief executive, said in a statement.
The company hopes to use technologies already developed for the aerospace and defense sector to help make the exploitation financially viable.
Developments in space, unmanned aerial vehicles and underwater vehicles for the oil industry have changed the financial dynamics of deep sea mining, said Lockheed Martin UK.
Fueled by increasing prices for raw materials, the company hopes to extract tennis ball-sized nodules of copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese, as well as rare earth minerals that sit on the seabed around four kilometers below the surface.
The British company is targeting a combination of remotely operated or autonomous underwater vehicles, pumps, suction and riser pipes to extract the minerals.
A Canadian-based company, Nautilus Minerals, already is working on a project to extract minerals using remotely piloted machines from an area of the sea near Papua New Guinea.
Lockheed Martin officials here said the precious metals extracted would also be of interest to the company itself for its aerospace, communications and defense activities.
Ball told the BBC in a radio interview today that the mining venture also has potential strategic benefits for the U.K. government.
“It’s another source of minerals; there’s a shortage, and there’s difficulty getting access, so there’s strategic value for the U.K. government in getting an opportunity to get these minerals,” he said.
China’s near monopoly on the production of rare earth minerals used by the world’s defense industry has been a cause of increasing concern among Western governments .
Deep sea mining, though, is controversial, and environmental impact studies on the British project are scheduled to get underway later this year.
The exploration effort is expected to last around three years.
With the backing of the U.K. government, UK Seabed Resources already has applied for a second exploration license, covering a separate area, from the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N.-mandated organization that controls mining rights in international waters.
Thirteen licenses have been granted by the ISA to companies and government organizations from China, Russia, India and elsewhere.
Deep sea mining was used as cover by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s in a bid to secretly recover a Russian nuclear-armed submarine that had sunk in deep water in the Pacific.