The Drive for Deep-sea Mining
The Norwegian government has become the first country to allow deep-sea mining (DSM) exploration in its waters. On 9 January, Norway’s parliament voted 80–20 in favor of allowing exploratory mining on the continental shelf in the Norwegian Sea. The aim is to map the seabed in the country’s jurisdiction and investigate whether sulfides and manganese crusts could be extracted profitably from the sea floor.
DSM is seen as a new means to secure minerals such as manganese, nickel, cobalt, and copper from rock concentrations known as polymetallic nodules, polymetallic vents, or cobalt-rich crusts. These minerals are seen as key to achieving the transition away from fossil fuels.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that “[a]n energy system powered by clean energy technologies differs profoundly from one fueled by traditional hydrocarbon resources. Critical minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements are essential components in many of today’s rapidly growing clean energy technologies – from wind turbines and electricity networks to electric vehicles”.
While the exact mix of minerals is unclear, due to continuous technological advancement in areas such as battery design, the IEA estimates that overall mineral demand from clean energy technologies could quadruple by 2040.
Concerns With Deep-sea Mining
There is a great deal of concern about the possible impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and ecosystems. DSM processes will likely take place over a large area, involving activity that will disturb the seabed, send sediment into the water column, and increase activity on the surface. Light and noise pollution is very likely. Noise levels and frequency ranges are also unclear but are expected to disrupt sea creatures that use sound to navigate.
The International Seabed Authority is an intergovernmental body of 168 member states and the European Unity, set up to authorize and control the development of mineral-related operations in the international seabed. The authority has produced regulations for exploration and is working on similar governance for exploitation. The intention is for these regulations to “balance economic needs with rigorous environmental protection. Once in place, they will require any entity planning to undertake activities in the international seabed area to abide by stringent global environmental requirements.” Neither the exploration nor exploitation regulations would not automatically cover Norway’s waters unless Norway adopted them.
At present, Norway is in exploratory mode only, with no firm plans to move into exploitation. There is a moratorium on exploitation in the international seabed, although at least one commercial organization intends to apply for an exploitation contract in July 2024.
Using Automation to Reduce the Risks in DSM
If Norway and the wider international community decide to conduct DSM operations, then automation must be used throughout the exploration and exploitation process. Automation has long played a major role in the production and distribution of goods and services -- including increased productivity, cost reductions, improved quality, enhanced safety, and greater reliability. More importantly, automation technologies have reduced environmental impacts across all sectors of industry and infrastructure.
Areas where automation technology and techniques can help reduce the risks in DSM include:
- Minimizing disruption to the ecosystem by carefully analyzing and identifying narrow focus areas for operations.
- Reducing the footprint of mining equipment using advanced controls and minimizing human intervention.
- Minimizing noise and light pollution using advanced control algorithms and remote autonomous operations.
- Minimizing harm to the environment by capturing and processing any waste materials, as well as maintaining safety systems to reduce the likelihood and consequence of any loss of containment.
Using Automation to Reduce the Need For DSM
While seeking to reduce the risks in DSM, it is equally important that we find ways to use energy more efficiently and sustainably, to reduce the need for DSM. Safe and efficient execution of energy production, storage, and transmission systems requires proven automation technologies implemented by knowledgeable and skilled automation professionals. The following automation-based approaches are essential to help reduce some of the global energy demand that is fulfilled by fossil fuels and renewable sources:
- Smart grid technologies incorporate digital communication and control technologies to optimize energy distribution, monitor grid conditions in real-time, and accommodate variable renewable energy inputs.
- Demand-response programs adjust electricity consumption based on supply conditions, helping to manage peak demand and reduce strain on power grids.
- Recognizing and following industry standards that facilitate interoperability, environmental regulatory compliance, and enhance safety throughout power grids.
As well as reducing energy demands, we should strive to find ways to do more with what we already have. At present USD20B worth of rare metals are sent to landfill. There is an opportunity to “mine” this resource. One US company is currently recovering 90% of the precious metals from diesel catalytic converters with no toxic byproducts.  Automation plays a key role in the process of reuse, refurbishing, and recycling, as described in ISA’s position paper on Achieving Sustainability Goals with Automation.
Underlying all exploration and exploitation infrastructures is the need to manage the underlying risk of a cyber intrusion. There are significant consequences that could result from the compromise of technology that underlies the infrastructure including any, or all, of the following:
- Harm to the public and/or employees
- Loss of critical services
- Damage to critical operational machinery
- Major economic losses
- Loss of proprietary or confidential information
- Violation of regulatory requirements
- Harm to the natural environment
What Decision Makers Can Do
Decision makers – including those in industry, government, and academia – can help to deliver the many benefits of automation to minerals mining, including:
- Supporting the ongoing development and adoption of industry standards addressing key aspects of people, processes, and technology in automation systems.
- Encouraging educational institutions to increase the availability of degree programs, courses, and training aligned to prepare future automation professionals.
- Supporting the adoption of certification and certificate programs to strengthen the skills and knowledge of the automation professionals we all depend on.
ISA recommends that governments looking to secure their mining infrastructure should:
- Encourage the adoption of the ISA/IEC 62443 series of consensus standards addressing the security of industrial automation and control systems.
- Direct their regulations towards ensuring that critical infrastructure owner-operators apply a formal risk-based approach to cybersecurity management.
ISA further recommends that organizations looking to secure their mining infrastructures should:
- Support their front-line engineers by fostering a cybersecurity culture within their organizations, which prioritizes cybersecurity alongside other fundamental workplace tenets like efficiency and safety.
- Provide ample opportunities for engineers to be trained and certified on the specific requirements of cybersecurity of industrial automation and control systems.
Where to Start
As a non-profit, international professional association, ISA develops widely used safety and performance standards for automation; provides education, training, and certification programs for automation professionals; publishes books and technical articles; and provides networking and career development programs for automation professionals worldwide.
ISA is the primary developer of a widely used series of international consensus standards addressing the security of industrial automation and control systems. The ISA/IEC 62443 standards provide a flexible and comprehensive framework to address and mitigate current and future security vulnerabilities in those systems. These standards are among numerous ISA standards and guidelines that support manufacturing and supply chain efficiency and safety.
ISA created the ISA Global Cybersecurity Alliance (ISAGCA) to advance cybersecurity readiness and awareness in manufacturing and critical infrastructure facilities and processes. The Alliance brings end-user companies, automation and control systems providers, IT infrastructure providers, services providers, system integrators, and other cybersecurity stakeholder organizations together to proactively address growing threats. ISA also offers the leading conformity assessment program for industrial cybersecurity products and systems— ISASecure —which certifies against the ISA/IEC 62443 series of standards.
As part of its commitment to the education and certification of automation professionals, ISA actively supports global efforts to establish training and competency programs. An example is the Automation Competency Model developed by the US Department of Labor. This model defines the key skills, knowledge, and abilities that automation professionals need from entry-level to advanced career level and is updated regularly to ensure that emerging technologies are included, recognizing that the automation profession is constantly evolving.