A press release last month from Canadian miner Diamond Fields outlines (in brief terms) plans to develop a deposit that has been known for forty years, but remained largely untouched due to its location. Are we talking about some part of China, or Russia, or an irradiated ex-testing ground in Arizona maybe?
No, the Atlantis II Basin lies at the bottom of the Red Sea between Saudi Arabia and Sudan. According to a Reuters article, both countries have been aware of the deposit, located approximately 115 kilometers west of Jeddah, but have felt low base metal prices have not been sufficiently supportive to make the resource economically viable — until now. High gold, silver, copper and zinc prices have, say both governments, made the resource sufficiently attractive that the Saudis have sunk $70 million into exploration and the two countries are said to have plans to start production in 2014.
Details of how they intend to lift sediments from the seafloor are sketchy so far: the sea depth is some 2000 meters (6500 feet) at that point and although only the top 8.5 meters (28 feet) of sediment has been sampled, it is believed the resource extends to between 30 and 60 meters below the surface. The deposit is hailed by Diamond Fields, partner in the project, as the largest marine poly-metallic deposit in the world. Whether that is true, there are arguably few marine sites positioned so conveniently close to major port facilities. On the minus side, the Red Sea is a rich ecosystem and large-scale exploitation could create significant environmental damage in such enclosed waters.
The Reuters article quotes Tucker Barrie, a mining consultant who advises that copper is the most valuable prize from Atlantis II, but exploitation would require the construction of a smelter on land to extract the maximum benefit, a project that would cost some $2 billion alone. Drill core samples carried out by Preussag AG in the 1970s show metal concentrations by sediment volume of 3.47kg/m3 for Zinc, 0.78kg/m3 for Copper and 7.07grams/m3 of Silver, with inferred gold, cobalt, cadmium and manganese present as recoverable traces. Estimates of the resource size are guesswork at this stage, but that didn’t stop one Sudanese minister putting a figure of 3,750 tons of silver, 1,890,000 tons of zinc and 425,000 tons of copper, plus 47 tons of gold as an estimate on the 60 kilometer-long deposit.
What everyone can agree on is there are considerable technical challenges to overcome, but Diamond Fields does at least have a proven track record in marine resource exploitation. If the Saudis are willing to fund it, the company will likely find a way around the technological challenges.