Underwater mineral mining: a deepening dilemma
Life is full of inconvenient contradictions – the kinds of dilemmas that need more than quick fixes and off-the-shelf solutions.
Take our growing need for increased supplies of critical minerals – the sort of rare metals that are essential for many of the key technologies that will enable us to achieve a truly sustainable future.
As I discussed in a previous article on this topic, the current supply of critical minerals is not sufficient to support the rapid transition to net zero, as envisaged by the Paris Agreement targets and affirmed at COP26. For example, expected production of lithium and cobalt from existing mines and projects under construction will only supply around half of our requirements by 2030. Similarly, we’ll be missing 20% of our projected copper demand. Meanwhile, the supply of materials like battery-grade nickel and key rare earth elements like neodymium and dysprosium could also come under strain in the years ahead.
We need to find new sources of these minerals, and fast.
Nothing contradictory about that.
The problem is, one of the biggest potential sources of critical minerals is right before our eyes: our planet’s life-giving oceans. But it is one I believe we cannot – must not – simply plunder for our short-term convenience.
Our seas and oceans are natural repositories of precisely the kinds of minerals we need to sustain new green technologies. And there are plenty of voices ready to support investment in deep sea mining to extract them. But our oceans are one of our planet’s greatest natural resources. One that is largely defenseless against commercial exploitation. If we’re not careful, we could find ourselves trying to save our planet by destroying one of its most precious environments.
Dive into the detail
A closer look at the facts can help demystify the problem and shine a light on possible strategies.
We should begin by trying to understand just why the appetite for critical elements is so great – and growing so fast. We need certain rare earth elements (things like praseodymium, neodymium, terbium and dysprosium) for the magnetic components of turbines and for electric vehicles – both technologies that underpin our journey to net zero.
As we increasingly turn to sustainable energy technologies like wind and solar, we need a new generation of batteries to help store the power they generate. These high-performance, long-life batteries depend on elements such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. Additionally, we need an abundant supply of materials such as copper and aluminum for maintaining our electricity networks.
That’s quite a shopping list.
At first glance, the deep sea could provide rich pickings for these mineral-hungry technologies. Globally, abyssal plains (seabeds) contain trillions of valuable polymetallic nodules of copper, nickel and iron. Ancient hydrothermal vents are frequently indicative of sulfide deposits with gold, silver, lead and zinc. Undersea mountains, meanwhile, often have rich cobalt surface layers. And they are just there. Lying untouched in the ocean.
Tempting, isn’t it?
It sounds almost immoral to leave such a bounty unutilized – the fruits of the cosmic bombardment during Earth’s fiery formation.
If only we could go down there and pluck each nodule from the seafloor, one by one, we would have access to a near endless supply of precisely the minerals we need to support our green transition.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the ocean, our society – and our technology – often finds itself out of its depth.
Learning the lessons of mining on land
The problem is straightforward: currently, we lack the technological know-how to economically extract minerals from the deep sea – both with precision and more importantly, without serious environmental destruction.
Instead, we have until now relied on the spectacularly imprecise method of scraping, whereby vast machinery rakes along the sea floor and obliterates the entire biologically-active surface layer in pursuit of a relatively small mass of useful material. It’s like destroying a whole rain forest just to get at some valuable rocks on the ground.
Not only is such activity physically destructive on an almost unimaginable scale, but it also interferes with non-bottom dwelling marine life in a subtler but no less catastrophic way: underwater noise pollution.
A report from Swiss marine wildlife protection group OceanCare suggests that deep-sea mining activities could impact marine life from the surface to the seabed. Deep-sea species would be particularly vulnerable since they use natural sound to perform functions like detecting food and are not accustomed to anthropogenic noise at a close range.
Many deep-sea species are also sessile, which means they are attached to the seabed or another object, like a rock formation. As a result, they wouldn’t be able to evade the noise (vibration/pressure waves) created by deep-sea mining activities. Even migratory species like whales, dolphins and turtles could be impacted, even while briefly passing through a mining area to feed or breed, according to the report.
For fish, for crustaceans, for seabed-dwelling plants, the result is calamitous. A disruptive terrain scrubbed clean of life. An ecosystem changed forever.
We toy with this ecosystem at our peril. The deep sea might feel to us like an alien environment – indeed, deep sea exploration is probably less in our media driven collective consciousness that out space exploration – but it is central to human activity and survival: it absorbs heat from an already warming planet, it slows climate change by locking up carbon, it supports an abundance of marine life, and it recycles nutrients and most of the ‘deep carbon cycle’ happens at the juncture of tectonic plates.
It does all this quietly and efficiently, as it has done for hundreds of millions of years. Until, of course, we intervene.
“Delicate, long-living denizens of the deep – polychaete worms, sea cucumbers, corals and squid – would be obliterated by dredging. At the same time, plumes of sediments, laced with toxic metals, would be sent spiraling upwards to poison marine food-chains,” reports The Guardian newspaper in the UK.
Populations of sea creatures, smothered by muddy clouds kicked up by dredging machines and ‘deafened’ by noise pollution could take centuries to recover – if ever.
Certainly, if mankind’s track record of mining on land is a reliable gauge, those concerned with the protection of our oceans are right to be alarmed.
The extraction of coal and precious metals on land has long been environmentally damaging, causing a reduction in biodiversity, destruction of waterways, loss of vegetation, pollution, and soil erosion.
Mining is estimated to account for 4% to 7% of all greenhouse gases annually, or between 1.9gt and 5.1gt of CO2 equivalent emissions. Even a relatively common mineral such as iron carries a steep environmental cost, producing 2kg of greenhouse gases for every kg mined.
In short, our history of land mining seems to have been governed by short-term goals, profits over people and planet, and ruinous inefficiency. Only now, long after the initial damage is done are we beginning to understand the environmental impacts and take steps to develop mitigating technologies and techniques that may preserve or restore the environment.
Far from forestalling the effects of climate change, allowing our oceans to be exploited in a similar manner could exacerbate our problems and hasten our decline.
Surging demand for critical minerals
Don’t expect the world’s hunger for critical minerals to subside with the passage of time – quite the opposite.
Although vastly more sustainable than traditional fossil-fuel alternatives, wind and solar energy plants require 200% to 300% more metals to construct and operate than standard gas-fired plants. As such, the amount of minerals required to produce one unit of energy has increased by half since pre-2010, when fossil fuel plants dominated the industry.
The rise of electric vehicles (EVs) and associated batteries means by 2040 we might need up to 40 times more lithium, 20-25 times more graphite, cobalt, and nickel, and double the amount of copper than we consume at present.
Indeed, to meet our climate targets over the next two decades, clean energy will eventually account for 90% of global lithium demand, 60%-70% of demand for nickel and cobalt, and 40% of demand for copper and rare earth elements.
Our sea floors, hydrothermal vents and underwater mountains comprise a natural treasure trove of just such minerals. Moreover, these minerals occur in a variety and proximity far greater than any dry land ecosystem, where individual mines are often needed for each separate element.
Little wonder, therefore, that our deep seas are being scouted for potential mineral extraction on an unprecedented scale.
Deep sea mining – a race to the bottom?
Japan is setting the pace when it comes to mining domestic waters. Its state-owned mining company, JOGMEC, successfully extracted zinc from a 1,600m deep hydrothermal vent site near Okinawa in 2017, suggesting commercial viability is a real prospect in the near to mid-term future.
Beyond domestic waters, the UN-founded International Seabed Authority (ISA), encompassing 167 individual member states plus the European Union, is in charge of managing international waters on behalf of all nations.
One of its mandates is to help protect the marine environment from the potentially harmful effects of deep-sea mining. Since 2014, it has been developing an international regulatory framework to ensure any deep-sea mining benefits people everywhere, but progress has been hindered by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, the ISA has already granted 31 exploration licenses this century for international mining companies to investigate sites across the Pacific, Indian and Mid-Atlantic oceans. Five of these have been granted to China alone, which holds more mining claims than any other nation. This means China now has the right to explore and potentially commercialize 238,000 square kilometers (almost the size of New Zealand) of the deep sea in areas outside its national jurisdiction for cobalt, nickel, copper and other valuable minerals. Other key players in the race to the seabed include Japan, UK, Germany, France Korea and Russia.
One of the most resource-rich sites is the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Eastern Central Pacific, which is thought to contain up to six times more cobalt within its 6 million km2 boundary than all of the known reserves on land.
The commercialization of deep-sea mining could, by some estimates, begin by 2024. That is the date when contractors working on behalf of the Pacific Island of Nauru are expected to begin harvesting nodules in Nauru’s waters. Elsewhere in the Pacific, similar operations are planned for Kiribati and Tonga. This has prompted scores of governments to demand a pause in all deep-sea mining activity until the impacts are fully understood – although this research could itself take decades.
Opposition is mounting. At this year’s UN Ocean Conference in Portugal scientists, environmentalists and civil society groups joined forces to formalize their objections to deep sea mining.
Speaking at the conference, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said if allowed to go-ahead, deep-sea mining would “irreversibly destroy ancient deep-sea habits and impact those who rely on the ocean for their livelihood”.
Chile proposed a 15-year delay to regulations allowing deep-sea mining, and 146 lawmakers from around the world signed the Global Parliamentary Declaration Calling for a Moratorium on Deep Seabed Mining.
I hope it is not too little, too late.
If we are careless with nature, who knows what opportunities we will squander? During the past 20 years alone, thousands of new species of creatures have been discovered underwater. Some of these exotic species are helping us in unforeseen ways.
To give one example, bacterial resistance is a growing problem worldwide. Bacteria living in certain sponges produce antimicrobial compounds that can help scientists manufacture new antibiotics.
The danger of reckless deep-sea mining is that we extinguish new species before they are ever even identified, forever depriving us of their natural benefits – including even countering future pandemics.
As Professor Craig Smith, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, warns us:
“Deep-sea mining could end up having the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet in terms of area of impact.”
For me . . . there must be a better way?
A wave of alternatives to deep-sea pillaging
Instead of striving to satisfy our ever-growing desire for rare and environmentally-sensitive minerals, what if we reduced our need for them instead?
Recycling metals and deploying alternative green technologies are two approaches worthy of investigation.
Recycling would allow valuable metals to be removed from depleted EV batteries and reused during the production process for new ones. This technique could, by some estimates, meet 35% to 40% of our demand for these minerals by 2035.
And it’s not just batteries but disc drives, circuit boards, and even fluorescent lights that could have their metal contents selectively recycled, lowering the demand for newly mined indium, yttrium, neodymium, cobalt and lithium.
Other researchers are studying alternative battery technologies, sidestepping the need for metals such as cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper entirely. Progress is being made on the development of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, for instance, which use LFP as a cathode and a graphitic carbon electrode as an anode.
One study found that LFP batteries cost about 6% less than comparable NMC (nickel, manganese and cobalt) batteries and can last 67% longer in terms of recharge cycles.
With the commercialization of deep-sea sites gathering momentum in the Pacific, and with alternative technologies on the horizon, resistance to underwater mining is growing. But in the meantime – what else can we do?
It turns out, there is a better way…
If we shouldn’t be blithely scouring our ocean floors for minerals, stripping away all life in our wake, what should we be doing instead?
US-based startup Lilac Solutions, in which the Jameel Investment Management Company (JIMCO) is an investor, provides a glimpse of what is possible in solving such problems with a different perspective.
Lilac recognized a conundrum: specifically, that most of the world’s lithium reserves are sourced from natural saltwater (brine) deposits, yet separating lithium from saltwater requires vast and environmentally-damaging evaporation ponds. In response, Lilac has developed a new ‘ion exchange’ technology for extracting lithium from saltwater without needing these evaporation ponds. This method increases recovery while simultaneously yielding a high-purity product and with relative less environmental impact.
How does it work? Lilac’s special ion exchange beads absorb lithium as brine flows through water tanks. Later, hydrochloric acid is added to extract the lithium from the beads, resulting in lithium chloride, which can then be processed into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide suitable for batteries. What used to be a two-year process of lithium extraction now takes two hours.
Ion exchange has previously been used in water treatment programs, but never before in the rare elements industry.
If we can roll-out similar technologies such as this on a wider scale, it further fuels the argument that our seabeds should be left to flourish rather than ‘scraped clean’ of all biological activity. Otherwise, we condemn future generations to inhabit a world deprived of the oceans’ nutritional bounty and one of our ecosystem’s great regulators.
Salvation: From the outback to outer space
Another potentially game changing discovery comes from Australia, where researchers have recovered cobalt-rich deposits from copper mine waste in the Australian outback. Tests show the waste contains more than 200 times the amount of cobalt typically found in the planet’s crust. Now, teams of geologists are examining other mining waste samples across the country to see just how much cobalt might be waiting to be unearthed.
If this discovery is any indication, perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place all along and our most easily accessible supplies of vital minerals are closer to home than the fathomless depths.
Alternatively, instead of looking downwards through the subterranean murk, perhaps we could also raise our eyes up to the skies.
The asteroids orbiting our solar system include 8% metal-rich bodies and 75% volatile-rich carbonaceous bodies. Denser metals, platinum group minerals and rare earth elements are evenly distributed throughout, meaning they can be mined at relatively shallow depths – once the problem of commandeering the asteroid has been overcome, of course.
At present, the necessary technology remains developmental, but several companies are already vying for prominence. Among them are Planetary Resources, founded in Washington in 2012 (and later purchased by ConsenSys) by Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and others; and Silicon Valley-based Deep Space Industries (later purchased by Bradford Space), whose 2013 founders included space entrepreneur Rick Tumlinson.
More recently, Californian startup AstroForge launched in January 2022 with US$ 13 million in seed funding. It has lab-tested technology for processing material mined in deep space and is due to trial its equipment in orbit via a future SpaceX flight.
These endeavors might well pay dividends.
One study suggests that harnessing a 500-ton asteroid and locating it in a low Earth orbit would cost around US$ 2.6 billion – yet a 30-meter asteroid could yield up to US$ 50 billion in platinum alone.
Now, those are the sorts of numbers to make people sit up and take notice.
Clock is ticking on irreversible bio-destruction
No one denies the importance of critical minerals for a host of technologies intrinsic to modern day life – mobile phones, batteries, green energy, microchips and more. The challenge is to acquire them in the least environmentally destructive way possible.
Before we devastate fish stocks and ravage an entire ecosystem by doubling-down on deep sea mining, we need to acknowledge our position of relative ignorance and press ‘pause’.
We need more knowledge and greater insight, otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of our land mining past and causing irreversible desecration to our marine environments.
It might seem to be all too easy to scour our seabeds for every scrap of value leaving chaos in our wake – but it will be far harder might to repair the damage done.
 https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions, IEA, May 2021
Cartoon image illustrated by Graeme MacKay