Offshore iron sand mining a big boost to our economy

By Engr. Edgar Mana-ay

I was intrigued by a YouTube program of YUL MACHO (this guy appears in short pants and undershirts to show his bulging muscles and “murders” the English language with his Cebuano accent and pronunciation) in an episode on offshore iron sand mining 14 kilometers off the shores of Gonzaga town in Cagayan.

First some basic geology on iron sand known as Magnetite (Fe3O4). Its basic origin, of course, is molten magma that came up to the surface of the earth. This ore body in the mountains are subjected to weathering and by a process called metasomatism until it became iron sands. Meaning ions of the metal are transported by water and react with the minerals in the host rock. It is actually metamorphism coupled with the introduction of ions from an external source. These magnetite iron sands were not originally part of the ocean but deposited by rivers, creeks, and natural waterways offshore about 50 million years ago. Metallic sands attract the magnet and are rough sands with metallic luster and mostly black in color. It became sands from an ore body because of the breakdown and travel (rolling motions) from the mountains towards the seas.

Magnetite is an iron-oxide mineral used to make steel and other products. From its offshore magnetite iron mining, New Zealand has been supplying the world with special steels for the automotive industries, while Indonesia has started supplying the world with Pig (not the pig that is turned into tocino for breakfast), cast and pelletized iron used for the manufacture of heavy equipment and locomotive parts, as well as steel rollers and rails. Indonesia has recently notified its clients that it will no longer export raw magnetite iron sand as it will use it all to produce pelletized and pig iron. There is a huge demand for magnetite iron sand for steel smelter plants of nearby countries like China, Taiwan, India and Korea. Just like iron ore, magnetite iron sand can be the primary raw material for the manufacture of cast iron and steel. The initial process is to transform it into Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) to feed electric furnaces to produce steel. World prices now for DRI feed stock range from $45 to $100 per dry metric ton depending on the demand and inventory situation.

There are only FOUR (4) countries in the world with huge magnetite sand deposits. These are Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Japan will almost exhaust its resources after mining it for the past 80 years, a big boost to its industrialization and economic boom. The Philippines will just begin to mine next year but there are already stupid oppositions from uneducated and foolish green activists. The Green Thumb Coalition (GTC) and Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM) claim the government has no specific policy on magnetite mining BUT Philippines’ guidelines on offshore mining cover ALL types of minerals including of course iron sands. JDVC Resource Corporation has approval to mine iron sands at an area of 1,902 hectares located 14 km. offshore from the Municipality of Gonzaga in Cagayan Province. The probable magnetite reserve in that area is about 632 million metric tons (MMT). JDVC has 2 newly acquired mining vessels with a net capacity of 10,000 MT/day.

The process is very simple. A large ship or vessel designed for that purpose will siphon the magnetite iron sand from the bottom of the sea, then a magnetic separator abroad the vessel separates the magnetite sand and returns to the bottom of the sea impurities such as mud and non-magnetite sand. Once the siphon pipe is lifted from the area, the nearby deposits will cave into the area siphoned, as if nothing happened. Only 10% of the siphoned sand and magnetically separated magnetite sand is stored in the hull of the vessel. The rest of 90% is returned back under the sea that may form sand mounts (just like the chocolate hills in Bohol). This will , later on, be an attraction for fish habitat since the sand mount is now cooler because of the absence of magnetite. There will be no permanent structure buried in the sea bottom and no chemical is used during the separation process except magnetism produce by electricity. Some moronic and uneducated environmentalists claim that magnetite mining can increase the vulnerability of target areas to floods and the absence of magnetite in the sand can deplete and erode the coastal and near-shore areas. These are all nonsense with no scientific basis.

The “Japan Experience” after 80 years of exhausting magnetite sand deposits showed that the 90% sand returned to the ocean became the habitat of fishes and the seven succulent sea beast because the sea is now said to be equivalent to Cold Deep Ocean. This gives us the cue that the way to go about in the future about the much environmentally hated extractive industry for minerals is towards the bottom of sea mining instead of on the surface of the earth. There are many resources that can be dredged from the seafloor to support the need for minerals by our country. Phosphorite can be recovered from shallow shelves and banks and used for fertilizer. Gold, diamond and heavy black sand are being separated from surface sands and gravels of some continental shelves by specially designed ships. Manganese nodules cover many parts of the deep seafloor notably in the central Pacific. These black potato-sized lumps contain approximately 25% manganese, 15% iron and up to 2% each of nickel and copper.

When minerals from land surfaces can no longer supply the needs of the steel and industrial sector of the globe, then we must go to the bottom of seas and oceans where there are fewer chances of pollution and where the resource is still abundant. The key is technological development of environmentally safe and effective offshore mining system.