Unlocking the secrets of the sea

Updated: 2011-12-30 07:40

By Du Hui (China Daily)

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Unlocking the secrets of the sea

Between July 1 and Aug 18, this year, China's first independently designed manned deep-sea submersible Jiaolong conducted five diving expeditions across three sea trials in the Eastern Pacific.

During the expeditions, eight people completed 15 dives of over 4,027, 5,057, 5,188, 5,184 and 5,180 meters. Not only was this a new record in China's manned deep-sea submergence, but also a feat that made China the fifth country in the world capable of deep-diving techniques of more than 3,500 meters after the United States, France, Russia and Japan.

The achievement also meant that China's manned deep-diving submergence techniques are now on par with advanced global levels and capable of undertaking deep-sea activity in more than 70 percent of the ocean floors across the world.

Jiaolong has been designed for a maximum diving depth of 7,000 meters, while the scope of its working area can extend to over 99.8 percent of the global oceanic area. It has also achieved several technological breakthroughs.

First is automatic navigation, which includes automatic directional navigation and auto depth set-up function. Using the auto depth set-up, Jiaolong can maintain a fixed depth below the sea level.

Second, Jiaolong has stable hovering that provides a reliable guarantee to complete high-precision tasks, an ability that most of the other foreign deep-sea submersibles do not possess.

Third, with advanced communication function below the water and the ability to detect appearances below the sea, Jiaolong can transfer images and high-speed voice, even as it detects small targets under the sea.

Jiaolong's success has also given a fillip to China's innovation activities and its impact is sometimes much more than the space-walks.

The Jiaolong was one of the major projects envisaged under the National High Technology Research and Development Program (863 Program) in 2002 by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The main purpose of the project was to promote China's capabilities in deep-sea transportation and ocean survey along with research on international seabed resources.

By making the current breakthrough in deep-diving technology, Jiaolong has helped China catch up with other developed countries and make rapid strides in marine technology. It has also become an integral tool for China's scientific expeditions on deep-sea resources.

Currently only four countries - the United States, France, Russia and Japan - have manned deep-diving submersibles that are capable of diving to a depth of over 6,000 meters.

Deep diving technologies are expected to greatly improve the scientific study of the oceans, which account for more than 70 percent of the area on the planet. Jiaolong is a powerful tool that can be used to further develop disciplines like marine biology, marine chemistry, seismology and other areas.

China's deep-sea science and technology development programs include three parts such as the Integrated Ocean Drilling boat, diving techniques and underwater observation network. Through wired and wireless networks, the submersible supplies energy to all observation points and collects information back to achieve a long-term and continuous automatic observation.

Jiaolong uses the most advanced underwater digital communications technology, such as high-definition video capture and transmission. Submarine observation networks are capable of long-term detection of the seabed area, the transmission of data, and analysis of samples collected in situ.

As a new platform to achieve long-term observation of seabed, undersea observation networks are useful in national security protection, environmental protection, resource development and disaster prevention.

Undersea observation can be conducted not only up to the water layer, but also down to the Earth's interior. It is the safest place to observe the ocean as waves and currents will not constrain the activities. At the same time continuous long-term observations can be conducted below the seafloor, along with analysis of the crustal fluid and other biological activities.

Deep diving technology development, especially for the development of deep-sea resources, is of great significance. We know there are lots of deep-sea mineral resources that have immense scientific and economic value, and are also a treasure trove of research for marine scientists across the world.

Currently, more than 70 percent of the oil and gas resources are obtained within the ocean, and about 1,000 billion barrels of oil reserves can be found in the deep waters of the world. Over the past decade, 70 percent of the newly discovered 100 million tons of proven reserves of oil and gas were in the sea, and half of them were in the deep sea.

At present, the general consensus of the international oil industry is that the potential onshore oil field areas are the Middle East and Central Asia, but in the past 30 years two of the most important oil fields of the Eastern and Western Hemisphere were found in the oceans. According to various estimates, offshore oil resources will be an important source of crude oil production growth in the future with over 50 percent of global oil and gas production and reserves coming from the ocean.

Of the discovered large oil and gas fields in the last 10 years, marine oil and gas fields account for more than 60 percent. Deep-sea oil and gas exploration in depths of 500-1,500 meters has become the most important strategic asset of future global energy development.

In the past 20 years, the proportion of marine oil production has doubled in the world's total oil production. Currently, marine energy resources have become the mainstream of global sustainable development and an important part of the energy system.

In the future, four strategic areas will be aimed within the ocean energy development. First are the deep-water offshore oil fields as 44 percent of oil resources globally are in deep water.

Second is liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the 21st century, eight of the world's 12 major oil and gas discovery were in the ocean, and seven of them are natural gas.

Third is natural gas hydrate. This is a new energy, and it exists in solid form in the sea-bed at low temperatures.

Fourth is the ocean, which itself is an inexhaustible supply of low-carbon energy, and has tremendous potential for future development.

With Jiaolong now able to dive to depths of over 5,000 meters, it indicates that China has reached the most advanced level in the world. But this is only one stage as China aims to dive to depths of over 7,000 meters in the near future.

The US has been a leader in deep-sea exploration and mineral development for 10 years. In 1960, the US used retired deep-sea submersible Trieste and two divers to dive about 11,000 meters at the Mariana Trench. The US Navy also has three manned submersible operations, including one called the Sea Cliff submersible, that can dive 6,000 meters.

In 2012, Jiaolong is going to try for 7,000 meters in depth. As the depth of 7,000 meters accounts for 99.8 percent of the oceans on the Earth, 99.8 percent of the oceans in the world can be open to the submersible.

The author is a professor at the PLA Dalian Naval Academy.