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Moving From Exploration To Mining

Most of the other companies that got these licenses, could not move to the second level.

"The second step is to determine if there are enough diamonds to be mined economically and to define what scale of mining would be needed. The third step is to carry out a trial mining to confirm the resource and the viability of the mining scale chosen," says Leveille.

Only when the company is successful at trial mining, does it initiate commercial mining of diamonds, which needs a mining license to be granted by the Ministry of Mines. "The application procedures for a mining license take about 12 months and the company needs to provide a feasibility study and an environmental impact study," says Leveille.

"Afri-Can is currently ready tolinitiate the second step within the next two months and follow up with step three in early 2013," he adds.

"The first two exploration phases are carried out at a cost for the company. Mining is started only when we have a resource of at least one year and a potential to add resources for over three years," affirms Leveille.

The company had recently recovered from its new diamond concession, a marine diamond haul of 84 gems of which more than 20 per cent were above 0.5 carats and the largest weighed about 1.6 carats, indicating a certain concentration of diamonds.

Another company, Diamond Fields International (DFI), was also able to make the transition from exploration to mining. Upto September 2007, more than 100,000 carats of diamonds were recovered, and sold by open tender in Antwerp. But then the company stopped operations and its mining license expired, which was recently renewed by the Namibian government in May 2012.

Lucrative Margins

Marine mining thus officially, started less than 20 years ago with Namdeb Holdings, the 50:50 partnership on land and sea, between the government of Namibia and De Beers Marine.

The operational margins in the business of marine mining are tempting. Says Leveille, "While marine production costs are generally between US $250 and $300 per carat, the selling price of these stones is between US $500 and $600 per carat, which is the most lucrative in the mining industry."

Marine Concessions

Mining companies have concessions generally covering 800 to 1,000 square kilometres, which are mapped and measured by GPS, a precise system. These concessions pertain to Namibia's internal boundaries only. The mining is carried out from the coast to about 15 kilometres into the sea and at a water depth of 150 metres. "The largest deposits are mined from the sea bed at depths of 110 metres to 140 metres deep," says Leveille.

 

Deep Sea Mining Operations

Huge self-contained vessels with heavy equipment are used for deep sea diamond mining. These vessels remain at sea for long periods, with the only poi i falls being made for emergency breakdowns or for crew change and storing.

Forms of Marine Mining

There are two forms of offshore diamond mining, horizontal mining, which is more common towards South Africa and vertical mining, used in Namibia.

In horizontal mining, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) crawls across the seabed, equipped with sensors, suction tubes and equipment to sort out stones of the wrong size. The ROV sucks up any gravel on the seabed and sends it up to the waiting ship. Here real people sort the diamonds out of the slurry of gravel, sand, and dirt.

In vertical mining used in Namibia operations, a large drill head, six to seven metres across, is used to drill into the diamond bearing rock of the ocean floor. The resulting debris are then sucked up to the ship, where diamonds are sorted and graded.

De Beers uses both types of mining in its operations on the south west coast of Namibia.

Differences: Exploration & Mining

While deep sea exploration and mining both work on the same principle, the only difference is the size of the operations. While the exploration system uses a 20 tonnes per hour treatment plant, a mining system uses a treatment plant of over 100 tonnes per hour. Another difference between exploration and mining is in the size of vessels used.

Leveille says, "Exploration vessels are over 100 metres long and weigh 6,000 tonnes while vessels used for mining are bigger, being 150 metres long that weigh 8,000 tonnes. These vessels can treat between 1000 and 3000 cubic metres of gravel per day.

De Beers deploys six such marine mining vessels, while Afri-Can contractor deploys two vessels. In spite of adverse winds and sea swells, the down time due to weather conditions is less than 10 per cent annually.

Environmental Impact Limited

The environmental impact of deep sea mining is low, much lower than land-based mining. Leveille shares, "The area is the oldest desert in the world and the sea is an extension of it. There is nearly no sea vegetation which only lies near the beaches. The area where the bulk of the mining occurs is deep and contains only rock and sand. The mining method is mechanical and does not require the usage of any chemical or explosive products."

Production

In 2011, De Beers treated more than 80,00,000 tonnes of gravel from which it recovered about 13,00,000 carats of diamonds. These diamonds recovered from both onshore and offshore operations are of the world's highest quality.

The diamonds are then sorted into categories and sold. Under the mining license granted by the government, the profit from the diamonds belongs to the company but the Government receives 10 per cent of the value of the diamonds as determined by government valuators, an international company under a five years contract with the government.

Namdeb operations on land and sea contributed about US $400 million per year to the economy with an annual production from deep sea mining being about 1.6 million carats, of which more than 95 per cent were gem quality diamonds.

Besides diamonds, the sea floor is also full of mystery, potential and possibilities with initial exploration activities of the extinct black smokers or volcanic vents on the sea floor being probably rich in gold, copper and other precious metals. Is this the future?

How Did Diamonds Get Into The Sea

A 100 million years ago, when a continental uplift eroded the central South African land mass, which historically hosts the diamond bearing kimberlite pipes, diamonds were swept into the river and carried out onto the delta system where the river met the ocean. Natural forces carried the stones westward along the ancient course of the orange River and northward along the Atlantic beaches. Initially, diamonds were concentrated on the river delta and on the beaches near the delta. These deposits were later redistributed up along the coast of Namibia, where they lie on depressions on the sea bed, which traps the diamonds.

It is estimated that about two to three billion carats of diamonds found their way along the Orange River, to the beaches and marine deposits on the Namibian and South African coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Namibia was a German colony when diamonds were first found here at the turn of the century. In 1908, over 40 years after the discovery of the first kimberlite pipe in South Africa, a railway construction worker found the first diamond near Luderitz, a desert region of Namibia, leading to a diamond rush, in the deserted diamond fields. When the Germans could no longer find the diamonds on the beaches, they abandoned these fields.

Then in 1961, Sammy Collins, a Texan entrepeneur, mined diamonds off the shallow sea floor off South Africa. De Beers, bought out Sam Collin's operation in 1965, and then commenced a period of marine exploration to assess the extent of their marine concession reserves, which brought them to Namibia

From Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, across the desert in Oranjemund, 100 miles south of Luderitz, and located at the mouth of the Orange River, De Beers does coastal mining of diamonds, alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

Pure gem diamonds used to be literally strewn on the beach. Years ago, more than 15,000 carats of diamonds were found on this beach. In one single day, 6000 carats of fine diamonds, valued at over US $ 1-5 million, were recovered from this beach. These were also the finest quality diamonds, as having been pounded by ocean waves for millions of years, the inferior diamonds had been smashed to bits eons ago.

The treasure hunt for diamonds took this mining company from the beaches into the sea. And then as they say, the rest is history with deep sea mining of diamonds having developed into a high technology industry in its own right.





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