Nome’s Remote-Operated Submersible Gold Mining Dredges

Tramrod was Nome's first remote-operated submersible gold mining dredge.

Tramrod was Nome’s first remote-operated submersible gold mining dredge.

The Tramrod was Nome’s first remote-operated submersible gold mining dredge, operated by the WestGold mining company in 1989 and known locally as the “Underwater Miner”. There have also been several other attempts at diverless or remote-operated submersible gold mining dredges offshore Nome in the decades since. Here I attempt to document the various attempts and their results:

Tramrod; 1989, 1990; WestGold; Very little production, did not pay for fuel. Program cancelled, crawler refurbished and used in another part of the world more suited to it.

JAG Crawler (aka Pac Man); about 2003; Little to no production, did not pay for fuel. Placed in storage until 2012, see Rebel Crawler.

Casa de Paga Crawler; 2004 to present; Casa de Paga; Producing a profit for each of the past 11 years. Decent profit margins on good ground with high gold prices. Can still be out dredged by a diver on a 10″ in certain conditions. Gold mined has paid for fuel and upgrades, as well as modest income for operators. This is the crawler I operate.

Mad Max Crawler; about 2007; J5 Mining; Major design flaws. No mothership, support boat floats sold and reused on the Eroica. Promising trials, but severely mangled in storm, stored then parted out.

Gold Fish; about 2008 to 2011; John Mihelich; Successful remote arm, innovative design features. Poor coverage. Required ground that was both higher grade and shallow. Combination of resource depletion, DNR regulation changes, and lease owner policy changes caused this to be decommissioned and parted out.

A 1 atmosphere mining sub designed for offshore Nome. Never got enough gold to even pay for fuel. Has not moved since 2011.

A 1 atmosphere mining sub designed for offshore Nome. Never got enough gold to even pay for fuel. Has not moved since 2011.

G-Force Submarine; about 2009; One atmosphere submarine with rigid snorkel, designed to drive from the beach into the water and mine in depths up to 90′. Horrible design, but very well built. Never got enough gold to pay for fuel.

Persistence (aka Tiny Feet); about 2009, 2011, 2015; various owners, latest is Pacifica; serious design flaws in both crawler and mothership. Buyback crab boat. Has a few days of production each of the years it’s been tried, then a few years of refurbishment and repairs. Gold mined has not paid for docking fees let alone fuel.

Rebel Cralwer under development and testing offshore Nome, Alaska in 2012. Last seen for sale.

Rebel Cralwer under development and testing offshore Nome, Alaska in 2012. Last seen for sale.

Rebel Crawler; 2012; The pac-man crawler refurbished and rebuilt with a new mothership, a buyback crab boat named the Rebel. Failed to get enough gold to pay for fuel. Last seen offered for sale out of Dutch Harbor.

Kentucky Golden Rod; 2012; Palmerosa Mining; Serious design flaws, built by smart people with zero offshore Nome mining experience. Vessel refurbished as a 10″ diver dredge.

Alaska Golden Rod; 2012; Serious design flaws, expected free flowing sand. Vessel refurbished as a 6″ diver dredge.

“R.O.D.V.”; 2014;  Poor design, too small, no mothership. Has only gotten wet once, has not produced any gold yet. Built with support from a German TV show about Nome gold mining.

Golden Seahorse; 2015; Vern Atkinson and EddyPump; Poor design, too small, can easily be outperformed by a diver with a 4″ dredge. Designer thought gold was in free flowing sand. Used diver to watch crawler and 7 guys on surface to support the dredge. Was portrayed on the TV show Bering Sea Gold: Under the Ice as having made half of it’s capital cost in one month of ice dredging. Claim is dubious (the TV show is thought to frequently give false gold counts) and portrayed profit disregards the high operating costs. This EddyPump dredge sat idle for most of the summer 2015 season, and was finally taken out for a few days in September 2015.

Surf-Crawler-on-shoreSeveral more have been attempted to be built over the years but never got wet. There have also been several “surf crawlers” which are basically like the Christine Rose, except on giant tracks. All surf crawlers sat idle for most of 2015 due to inherent design limitations and poor grade.

 

Book Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir (Spoilers at bottom)

Construction of my ice dredging hut. No other human for 7 miles.

Construction of my ice dredging hut. No other human for 7 miles.

An excellent book for anyone that likes science-based fiction and space travel. Includes spoilers, far down the page. The Martian was a fun read. It was very realistic and everything was based in science or backed up by science and math. Except, as the author acknowledges in interviews, for the initial Mars weather event at the start of the book; but even that could be plausible. I enjoyed the technical details and the decision making processes used by our hero and the people trying to help save him.

I’m glad that this book is currently being made into a movie. Ridley Scott as director is an exciting choice and Matt Damon should be good as the main character.

Go read the book, then give it to a teen.

Spoilers below.
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Spoilers:

A few things in the book, although realistic and believable, were not how I would imagine the situation to play out. I don’t know if a Mars astronaut would have allowed the “Rich Purnell Maneuver” scenario. He could have told them not to do it, with the type of drive they were using, it could have been aborted within weeks of it being initiated. The Purnell Maneuver causes significant risk to his five crew mates, and postpones or cancels the next Mars manned mission. I believe that if I were in his situation, I would have not cooperated with such a move. Instead, the resupply direct to Mars could have succeeded. And even if it didn’t, the hero could have conducted extensive science before he ran out of food and died. He could have made the trek to the Ares 4 MAV with his collected and labeled samples; used his water to add fuel capacity to the MAV. His samples, his spare parts, and his body would be waiting there once the next crew arrived. They would bury his body and use the extra fuel to carry his samples to orbit after their 31 sol mission. And if the food-direct resupply mission did work, yay, he gets to go home.

In the future, I suspect Mars (etc) mission planners will read this and other similar books to influence their designs. For example, in the book it took two months for NASA to realize he was alive because public disclosure laws required the publication of all images within 24 hours of receipt and they didn’t want to show his body. This is a good policy, but there should be an exemption for images of macabre, saying they are not to be released for 20 years. I’m not sure how this would have helped, except that the rest of the crew would have stayed in orbit for a few more hours. And maybe sent down their extra food somehow.

Also, how hard is it to throw in some seeds of edible plants and freeze dried soil bacteria. A few dozen grams. Just for fun. Every mission should bring a mini seed bank, if for no other reason than to leave then in a time capsule on the surface. And maybe add 200 grams for a SSD with a cultural archive. In compressed SD format, modern storage devices could hold more than just one decade of TV and movies.

And what is the deal with sending astronauts up with laptop computers that cannot survive a rapid decompression? There are options besides LCD screens.

As for the RTG, I would not have bothered to put it back. It’s pretty safe, and is a good backup to have around within walking distance for heat and minimal power. He could have left it in the one uninsulated rover.

I know it was fairly unforeseeable, but why didn’t he have some potatoes growing in the rovers? He needed all growing the capacity he could get. This would have enabled him to recover from the hab explosion. I would have kept them in the rover with the RTG.

For the Rovers, I wonder if there was a better strategy than stopping to to recharge for the 13 hours of sunlight. Lets explore:

Solar power, he has 50 panels for the hab, each with a bracket to hold it up at a 14-degree inclination. Each panel is 2 square meters, 10% efficient, that area gets a solar insolation of over 500w/m^2, which comes to 100w per panel.

Battery capacity per rover: 9000whr, he has two rovers

  • Range for 1 Rover with both batteries: 80km/sol (225whr/km), needs 14 panels @13hours to recharge
  • Range for 2 Rovers Loaded on rough terrain: 50km/sol (360whr/km), needs 14 panels @13hours to recharge
  • Range for 2 Rovers Unloaded on easy terrain: 60km/sol (300whr/km), needs 14 panels @13hours to recharge
  • Limiting factor is battery capacity. Hab batteries are too big to fit without chopping up the rover.

Lets consider mounting the solar panels in useful configurations while driving. The author does not say the shape or size of the rover or the panels, just saying the panel area and that two fit on the roof of each rover, overhanging on each side. Later, he stores two panels per side of the rover, using brackets he added. Let us consider towing the second rover, this gives us double the surface area and requires only 33% more energy to pull, unloaded. Lets use the 100w RTG to power the rover headlights and internals.

  • Roof: 2 panels each, 2 roofs = 4 panels @ ok angle => 400w
  • Side: 2 panels each, 4 sides = 8 panels @ poor angle =>400w to 600w
  • So 12 panels is 800w to 1000w, @300w/km = 2.6kph to 3.3kph, for 13 hour sunlight = 34km to 43km per sol
  • Or 20 panels (stack 2 deep on all 4 sides, plug in exposed panel) takes 18,000whr/(20*100w) = 9 hours to charge, 60km/sol plus 4 hours of sunlight driving at 2.6kph to 3.3kph, adds 10km to 13km for a total of 70km/sol. Still less than the 80km/sol he got in the book.

Lets assume he can make a roof rack out of the panel frames, the rover benches, and struts from the MDV and MAV. These roof mounts are large enough that each panel overhangs the sides a little more than half way.

  • Roof: 4 panels each, 2 roofs = 8 panels @ ok angle => 800w
  • Side: 2 panels each, 4 sides = 8 panels @ shadowed, poor angle =>200w to 600w
  • So 16 panels is 1000w to 1600w, @300w/km = 3.3kph to 4.5kph, for 13 hours = 43km to 58km per sol
  • Or 24 panels (stack 2 deep on all 4 sides) takes 18000whr/(24*100w) = 7.5 hours to charge, 60km/sol plus 5.5 hours of sunlight driving at 3.3kph to 4.5kph, adds 18km to 24km for a total of 78 to 84km/sol. About the same as the 80km/sol he got in the book with one rover.

Looks like one key is to minimize the stationary recharge time by increasing the number of panels. This also increases the setup and take down time, only half can be done in the dark, in order to maximize solar powered sunlight driving. The other key is to maximize solar capacity while in motion.

Lets make the roof racks bigger, 2×3 per roof, overhanging off both sides and both ends. We can drive slower for safety.

  • Roof: 6 panels each, 2 roofs = 12 panels @ ok angle => 1200w
  • Side: 2 panels each, 4 sides = 8 panels @ shadowed, poor angle =>300w
  • So 20 panels is 1500w, @300w/km = 5kph, for 13 hours = 65km per sol
  • Or 28 panels (stack 2 deep on all 4 sides) takes 18000whr/(28*100w) = 6.5 hours to charge, 60km/sol plus 6.5 hours of sunlight driving at 5kph, adds 32km for a total of 92km/sol. Now we are making progress.

I don’t think it’s feasible to mount more than 6 panels to the roof. It could be, I just don’t know the shapes we are dealing with. Driving at half the 25kph battery speed, makes for 4.8 hours of night driving per sol.

Lets work the problem backwards to find out how many panels we would need to mount on the rover to drive the whole 13 hours of sunlight without stopping to setup panels. Overnight RTG power charges batteries enough for the internal functions for the whole sol.

  • For 80km/sol @300whr/km & 13 hours => 6.2kph, 1850w (18 panels), 3×3 per roof, still too many unless we know the dimensions.
  • For 90km/sol @300whr/km & 13 hours => 7kph, 2100w (20 panels with RTG since we don’t need headlights). That’s 40 square meters of panels.
  • For 108km/sol @300whr/km & 13 hours => 8.3kph, 2500w (24 panels+RTG), 3×4 per roof. Now I’m just being silly. With that much overhang, turning may be an issue, depending on the gap between the rovers. Although, if he had a couple masts placed on the centerline of the roof, one towards the front and one towards the back, then lines going out to the roof rack for support, maybe he could pull off this many watts of power. Especially if he placed two panels back to back, vertically against each mast.

Ok, lets say that in addition to the 6 panels per roof, he can store the panels on the sides two wide and three deep. They were designed to stack and so that should be fine. This allows stationary charging with 36 panels, leaving 14 with the hab. He can charge the batteries in 18000whr/(36*100w)=5 hours. Assuming he sets up in the dark and needs 1/2 hour of sunlight to pack them away, this leaves 7.5 hours for sunlight driving. In driving configuration, the panels provide 1500w. At 300w/km = 5kph, for 7.5 hours this is 37km per sol. Plus the night battery driving of 60km is a total of over 97km/sol. Now this is enough to shave some time off the trips. Of course the Pathfinder would take up the space of one roof panel, so it would only be 93km/sol.

Solar powered driving would have also saved him from backtracking to determine the direction of the dust storm, because he would have been able to read the panel output in real time, at several select times a day for a couple days. Also, the slow driving would have reduced the chance and severity of his crash. Although longer driving time and fatigue could have increased this risk.

Susistance Mining

Andrew C. Lee in Nome working on sub-sea crawler.

Andrew C. Lee in Nome working on sub-sea crawler.

The life of a Bering Sea gold dredger is hard work and by no means a way to get rich quick; most dredgers are either recreational or subsistence miners. Recreational miners don’t make a profit, they are just there for fun and adventure; they hope to cover most of the expenses of their hobby with the gold they find. Subsistence miners make a net profit at the gold mining, but only really enough to cover their modest living expenses for the year and then reinvest any extra gold money into upgrades and improvements on their equipment.

Even with thin margins, the life of adventure and freedom, hard work and challenges, exploration and discovery, and all the other reasons is a strong calling to a few hardy souls. So much so, that they have made a hit TV series about the adventures and mishaps of my fellow gold miners and wannabees.

In the Nome Offshore Mineral Lease sale of 2011, we gained access to over 2400 acres of new ground, in addition to the 800 acres from the previous sale in 1999 that we have been mining on with the prototype for the past 10 years.

Over the years, we have figured out what works and doesn’t work, and have refined the design of a second generation machine that would operate much more efficiently and productively. But the prototype works well enough, we can cover expenses and make a small profit, enough to get us to the next year and to make incremental improvements. Yet it doesn’t work so well that we can afford to build a whole new replacement machine, without bringing on costly investors that would negate the value of the increased gold production.

The biggest threat to resource extraction is ignorant people who hate progress and mask their hate in the guise of protecting the environment. Luckily the State of Alaska recognizes that this type of mining (placer) is very safe for the environment; and has been extensively studied, both in general and in this specific area. However, with mining in the current political climate there is always the risk that anti-progress people will gain power, shut down mining, and kill jobs.

Along those same lines, being granted the needed permits in a timely manner is always a risk; a low risk in the case of mining offshore Nome. There are 13 government agencies at the State and Federal level that review these types of mining operation. Most of these either have a general permit that covers most operations, or do not require a permit they just want to be kept in the loop. For the other agencies, there has not been unreasonable issues in obtaining their permits. Alaska DNR has designed an excellent consolidated form called the APMA that applies for all the needed permits with one comprehensive application.

From a technical point of view, there is always the possibility that the design improvements people attempt on new mining machines will not work, or worse, would hinder production. Of the 10 or 12 operations similar to the one I work with, that have been designed and built for mining offshore Nome, only one has been successful and is still in operation; and that is the one we operate. Our extensive experience and years of trial and error serve to mitigate this risk and greatly improve our chances for success, but that took time, expertise, and a great deal of trial and error.

Weather is always a factor in the offshore Nome mining operations, but this is more of a risk to profitability. Even in the worst weather years, we have managed to get over 50 days of mining; but we always get more days than the smaller operations. While miners who get weathered out are still able to have a fun and interesting experience, the main attraction for them to Nome is working on a mining operation pulling gold out of the bottom of the sea, there are many days where this cannot be accomplished due to weather.

Mechanical issues are an important risk and challenge for any operation. Nome is an extremely harsh environment, with extreme temperatures, salt water and spray, storms, and other natural factors. Combine that with the complexity of the machines and rigorousness of the activity; the toll on the mechanics of the operation make it hard to keep running. We mitigate this risk by starting with the proper equipment, then we have backups for every component that could fail, critical components have a tertiary backup. Also, since our vessel is bigger (now only the 6th largest in Nome, down from being the largest five years ago) aboard we have welders, torches, tools, metals, and all the accessories needed to affect repairs quickly and on site.

The definition of success for each miner and wannabe is different. For some they want the adventure and are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for it. Others want to break even while having their adventure. Some have a much higher bar of success and actually want to make enough money to cover their costs and support their family, of the 200 to 300 people that attempt gold mining in the Bering Sea each year, only 50, perhaps as many as 75 actually succeed in subsisting mostly on their profits from gold mining.

If you are thinking about mining for gold in Nome, or if someone is trying to get you to invest in an operation, email me “nome” at-sign “safonatt.com” and I can provide more information and specifics on what and who to avoid.

-Andrew C. Lee