Subsea technology manufacturers SMD are leading a €12.6m project to build a robotic underwater mining machine which could extend the life of flooded mines across the world.
The Wallsend-based firm is heading the VAMOS (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System) project, which involves Dutch, Slovenian and Spanish partners, among others.
As part of the European Horizon 2020 programme, the 42-month project will produce a “downsized” robot prototype which is capable of being launched into under-exploited or abandoned mines which are flooded, to continue the mining of minerals.
SMD chief executive Andrew Hodgson said the project was a neat bridge between the firm’s current work on subsea mining machines for Nautilus Minerals, and a potentially lucrative new market.
He explained: “This is a fantastic new growth opportunity for us, and in our view this could be even bigger than the subsea mining market which has already created a lot of attention.
“We conducted some of our own research which highlighted some economic difficulties with current opencast mining methods. One of the main reasons mines close is due to flooding. In many cases it isn’t economically viable to drain them, and therefore valuable minerals go untapped.
“Our solution uses the technical know-how we’ve cultivated on our subsea work and puts it to use in a new market.”
While some components of the robotic machine will be manufactured elsewhere in Europe, the finished product will be assembled on Tyneside buy SMD’s skilled team.
The group has now drawn down European funding and expects to begin advanced designs in the second half of this year, with production of the machine slated for 2016.
Mr Hodgson said there was hopes that SMDs new Chinese owners, CSR Times Electric, would hold the key to Asian markets for the technology, should it be successful.
He added: “The environmental impact of mining is a huge issue for the industry, and innovative responses to this is of big interest for Europe.
“For us it’s a great chance to utilise our skilled team who can work on this project before some of the other subsea mining contracts are likely to come to fruition down the line.”
The “kick-off” meeting of ¡VAMOS! was held in at SMD’s headquarters earlier this month as representatives from the 17 participating organisations in nine countries met to draw up timetables for the work.
In another boost for the region’s offshore sector, engineering specialist Osbit Power has secured a multi-million pound contract to provide three sets of oil well-intervention equipment.
The Riding Mill-based firm will provide Helix Energy Solutions with the Intervention Tension Frames (ITFs), a 20 metre high platform, weighing around 100 tonnes, used to tend oil wells from vessels.
It is the second largest order to date for the firm.
MD Dr Tony Trapp said: “The award of this work is testament to the talents of our engineers who have the ability to transform Helix’s original concept for the ITFs into an elegantly engineered solution.
“We are also pleased to be able to call upon the services of a talented and competitive supply chain, predominantly in the North East of England, which enables OSBIT to maintain our commitment to delivering innovative and cost-effective systems.”