MAC: Mines and Communities

In a statement of appalling insensitivity towards the victims, some Indian scientists have expressed

Published by MAC on 2005-01-14

In a statement of appalling insensitivity towards the victims, some Indian scientists have expressed delight at finding titanium-rich deposits, uncovered by the recent tsunami which struck Tamil Nadu. Their offence is compounded by the crass headline used in the following article.

Tsurprise! Titanium-rich beaches

Times of India

January 14, 2005

NEW DELHI: Amid all the tragic news coming in the wake of the December 26 tsunami, there's one that should bring some cheer to Indians - the natural phenomenon seems to have left behind millions of tonnes of titanium ore on the beaches of Tamil Nadu.

Considering that known global resources of the ore are in the region of 285 million tonnes and titanium is among the most sought-after metals in the world, you could call that a silver lining.

Titanium is an important metal because of its high strength to weight ratio - it is as strong as steel, but 45 per cent lighter. It's also twice as strong as aluminium, but only 60 per cent heavier. Because of its strength, lightness, extraordinary corrosion resistance, and ability to withstand extreme temperatures, it finds use in the aerospace industry. It is also extensively used for consumer products such as automobiles, computers and mobile phones.

The story behind the discovery of the titanium ores that the tsunami left behind is fascinating. It began not on December 26, but about a year-and-a-half earlier, when the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) set up a networked project involving six of its own institutions and several other academic and industrial institutes to examine the possibility of "placer mining".

A placer deposit consists of some valuable mineral or gemstone that accumulates in weathered rock, stream sediments or in beach deposits as a result of natural weathering and erosion.

A team of scientists led by Dr V J Loveson of the Central Mining Research Institute (CMRI), Dhanbad, who is the coordinating scientist for the project, has been monitoring the level of placer deposits on Tamil Nadu's coastline since then.

By an amazing coincidence, Loveson and his team arrived in Nagapattinam on December 26 for a routine survey. Little did they realise at the time that t his survey would be anything but routine.

The team learnt of the tsunami and was on the beaches of Karaikal by 3 pm the same afternoon. Unlike in the past, they had this time a new piece of equipment - ground penetrating radar - which could scan and analyse the mineral content in the beach sand without having to collect physical samples. And it was being used in India for the first time.

Over the next two days, the team scanned 10-12 km stretches in Karaikal, Nagapattinam, Poombuhar and Velankanni. The depth of the geophysical profiles of the coast varied between 4 and 8 metres and they found incremental deposits of titanium ore varying between 1-3 metres in thickness in most parts.

This part of the coastline - from Cuddalore to Vedaranyam - already has stations that have been monitoring the data every 15 days over the last 18 months or thereabouts and hence it was easy to work out how much of the deposit was fresh, washed in by the tsunami.

When contacted by TOI, Dr Loveson said it was still too early to project any figure for the overall quantum of fresh deposits though figures like 40 million tonnes have been speculated upon.

That figure is based on back-of-the envelope calculations extrapolating the observed thickness of the deposits to the roughly 500 km of coastline that was hit by the tsnami.

More dependable estimates can be made once all the stations on the coast - spaced 5 kms apart - have sent in their data, said Dr Loveson.

A lot of these ores, like ilmenite and rutile, are known to exist at a depth of 10-15 metres on the seabed, he said, and the tsunami seems to have dumped it on the beach. The significance of the discovery might have been not very much before the CSIR project began.

India has a little over onesixth of the world's ilmenite reserves but accounts for just 0.0013 per cent (about one in 8000) of global production of the mineral.

This was largely because India had little or no capability in placer mining and the ore is essentially available in coastal placer deposits.

What the CSIR project is trying to do is to make the mining of the ore commercially feasible. There are parts of the world where as ilmenite in concentrations of as little as 3% has proved viable to mine.

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