13 February 2016
Muscat - Last month's signing of a landmark agreement between an Australian-Canadian mining firm and a prominent Omani engineering services provider effectively positions the Sultanate as an emerging support base for investors behind an unprecedented effort to commercially explore the ocean-floor for high-value minerals, say experts. Nautilus Minerals Inc inked a deal with Oman's United Engineering Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of MB Holding Group, to wet-test an array of gigantic robotic machinery that are proposed to be deployed on the seafloor to mine for ores rich in high grade copper, gold, zinc and silver in the Southwest Pacific.

Weighing several hundred tonnes and designed and assembled specifically for this first ever seafloor mining operation, the machinery -- dubbed Seafloor Production Tools (SBT) -- will be tested by United Engineering Services in Oman pending their deployment to an offshore location in the Pacific.  United Engineering last week signed a deal for the lease of a plot of land falling within Duqm Port's remit as a base for the wet-testing and storage of this multi-million dollar machinery.

Experts see the latest deals as boosting the In-Country-Value (ICV) of a path-breaking venture that is essentially set to take place half-way around the world.  They also underscore the Sultanate's notable role in the overall project as investors and service providers.

Oman's MB Holding Group is the largest shareholder in Nautilus Minerals with a 28.14 per cent stake.   Also among the company's shareholders are leading global resource companies Metalloinvest Holding (Cyprus) Limited (20.89 per cent) and Anglo American plc (5.99 per cent).

Canada-registered Nautilus is currently focused on copper and gold-rich seafloor massive sulphide discoveries in the Southwest Pacific where it holds a package of prospective exploration tenements (granted and under application).  Presently in hand for development is Solwara 1, a copper-gold project, in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea.

According to company officials, seafloor production equipment specially fabricated for the Solwara-1 project is currently en route to Duqm Port for wet-testing and storage.  Comprising a trio of remote-controlled vehicles -- reputedly the first of their kind in the world -- each is around 50 feet long and weighs around 300 tonnes apiece approximately.

Deployed on the ocean floor of the Bismarck Sea, each of the three mammoth machines is designed to perform a specific task. Nautilus explained: "The Auxiliary Cutter is designed as the pioneering machine which prepares the rugged sea bed for the more powerful Bulk Cutter. These two machines gather the excavated material; the third vehicle, the Collecting Machine will collect the cut material by drawing it in as seawater slurry with internal pumps and pushing it through a flexible pipe to the subsea pump and on to a Production Support Vessel (PSV) via a riser system.  Following dewatering of the material on the vessel, a state of the art cargo handling system will be used to load the dewatered material into four storage holds. It will then recover the material from the storage holds and transfer it directly to a handymax vessel for shipment of the material to China."

Welcoming MB Holding Group's role in the venture, Nautilus Minerals' CEO Mike Johnston said: "We appreciate the ongoing support from our largest shareholder, MB Holding Company, who is assisting us with the wet testing and provision of storage facilities in Oman. We look forward to the next phase of development to wet test our equipment as we work towards commencing our seafloor operations in Q1 2018."

Wet-testing of the seafloor production tools is expected to commence at United Engineering's new facilities at Duqm Port during the second quarter of this year.

© Oman Daily Observer 2016