Buried Treasure: Namdeb seeks technology breakthrough to tap mid-water gems


 Windhoek – Global diamond miner, De Beers, says an anticipated breakthrough in technology will enable it to tap into an estimated 80 million carats of marine diamonds believed to be deposited in the shallow waters of the Atlantic sea bed.

Exploiting diamonds deposited in the mid-waters, at depths of 30 to 50 metres, will enable Namibia Diamond Corp (Namdeb), equally owned by the Namibian government and De Beers, to extend its operations to beyond 2050.

Debmarine is currently mining marine gems at depths of between 90 to 140 metres.

Last year, Debmarine produced 1.16 million carats of marine gems, contributing to Namdeb's total output of 1.76 million carats in 2013. Namdeb's output rose 6 percent on 2012 production.

As onshore deposits continue to dwindling, Namdeb's future is becoming inextricably linked to its ability to tap into gems believed to have been deposited on the Atlantic sea bed by the flow of Orange River centuries ago.

The country's Atlantic coast holds an estimated 80 million carats, the world's richest marine gems deposits. Namibia's diamonds are also famed for their high quality, fetching triple the prices of neighbouring Botswana and Angola gems.

However, mining diamonds deposited in the gulleys and rocky areas, the so-called mid-waters, requires a breakthrough in technology.

“Mining in the mid-waters is premised on making a breakthrough in technology to exploit those deposits. Some interesting work has been done but we haven't reached a level where the researchers can say they are satisfied,” De Beers country manager, Daniel Kali, said in an interview.

Research into new technology is building up on current technology being used by Debmarine to mine deep water, known as probe drill platform (PDP), which delineates occurrence of diamondiferous gravels on the Atlantic sea bed.

The diamonds are deposited in “gulleys in very rocky areas along the Luderitz coast, and that is where our challenge is”, Kali has said.

“Current mining taking place offshore is not as challenging in terms of terrain, its more or less flat sea bed,” Kali said.

Coming up with the right technology to exploit marine gems deposited in gulleys and rocky areas underwater, will enable Namdeb to beyond 2050.

“Mid-waters provide tremendous potential provided we get the technology right but we haven't reached a level where we are satisfied with the technology we are coming up with,” Kali said.

Namdeb spokesperson, Pauline Thomas, has said: “There is still tremendous work required to define the scope and appropriate technology for the mid-water deposits. Suffice to say that the process of developing technology is ongoing, and various models and options are being considered,”

There is no clarity at the moment how much Namdeb will invest to exploit the mid-waters deposits and extend operations to beyond 2050. Namdeb has refused to answer questions on how such future investments would be handled by the two shareholders.

“It is difficult to place a clear monetary sum. There is still tremendous work required to define the exact scope and nature of the potential deposits that could be mined until 2050,” Thomas added. Currently, mining activities are restricted to the inner-shelf area where sampling is done by the PDP, which is a jack-up walking platform fitted with a probe drill used to conduct exploration drilling in dynamic surf zone.

The aim of this work is to delineate the occurrence of diamondiferous gravels which are covered by the sea and sand. The platform is connected to land with an aerial ropeway system which has a maximum extension of 350 metres. This cableway has a single seat carried which is used to transport personnel to and from the platform.

Namibia's diamonds export earnings surged 41.8 percent to R11.7 billion in 2013 buoyed by rising exported volumes and a depreciating local currency against the US dollar, the Bank of Namibia said in its annual report.

Diamonds mining contributed R2.5 billion in royalties, taxes and dividends to state revenue fund in 2013, according to the ministry of mines and energy. Namdeb separately paid government R74 million in dividends while Namibia Diamond Trading Company (NDTC) paid R120 million to the state in dividends. Diamond miners in Namibia pay a 55 percent tax rate on profits and a 10 percent royalty on turnover.

May 2014
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