In January, construction was completed on the Hakurei, a state-of-the-art research vessel and the first commissioned by the Japanese government in 30 years.
It will search for rare metals and other seabed resources in Japan's coastal waters.
The Hakurei cost 27.5 billion yen ($348.9 million) to build and carries equipment that can bore up to 400 meters under the ocean floor at a depth of 2,000 meters.
Still, officials from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC), which owns the Hakurei, seem less than satisfied.
"The ship was built in Japan, but a lot of the equipment required for resource surveying is foreign made."
The boring apparatus on the ship that test-drills into strata beneath the seabed was manufactured in the Netherlands, its unmanned robot was made in Britain, and so on. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's research vessel Shigen, used in sonic surveys of oil and natural gas deposits, was purchased from Norway in 2008. Its main sonic equipment is American made, and there are also foreign nationals among the technicians who man the vessel.
Most of the technology used in surveys and exploration of deep sea resources have been developed in concert with oil and gas exploration. This has given an advantage to the United States and European nations, which have such resources in abundance offshore. Japan is said to be lagging behind these countries in technological strength and price competitiveness.
This spring, an international exposition showcasing marine resource exploration technology was held in Houston, Texas. It was a huge success with approximately 90,000 attendees from around the world, which broke the event's attendance record for the first time in 30 years. One of the exhibits drawing a lot of attention was from French engineering company Technip.
Technip has a staff of around 26,000, and a record of achievement that encompasses the undersea extraction by pipe of not only oil and gas, but also minerals such as iron sand and phosphate ore. Nautilus Minerals, which carries out exploitation of metallic metals on the ocean floor, also utilizes Technip's technology.
"Seabed mineral resource exploitation is a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity," says Julian Denegre, Technip's business development manager. "We can put to use the experience and technology we've built up through mining development and oil and gas exploration."
Naturally, this kind of resource exploitation is susceptible to the market price for rare metals, and there is also the possibility that aggressive business expansion will eventually backfire. Even so, this does not bother Denegre.
"It's a given that there are risks in this industry," he says. "But if you don't take the lead, you won't survive in new markets."
There are also companies that have entered this field after latching on to the resource boom in recent years. One is IHC of the Netherlands, whose core operations include port dredging and the construction of dredging vessels.
A fourth of the Netherlands' land mass is below sea level, so for centuries it has worked to reduce the water level and strengthen shore protection by piling sand dredged from the ocean floor on the coast and riverbanks.
"Dredging and mineral exploitation are much the same, in the sense that they both involve boring rocks and sand on the ocean floor and hauling them up to ships," says IHC Mining managing director Martijn Schouten.
In July 2011, Tokyo University professor Yasuhiro Kato presented his findings that there are large quantities of seabed mud containing rare earth in international waters in the Pacific Ocean.
"The world is turning its attention to the exploitation of seabed resources," Kato says. "We need to cultivate our technological capability not only from the perspective of securing these resources, but in order to compete with foreign companies."
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