Could Sucking Up the Seafloor Solve Battery Shortage?

The Metals Company wants to try, but opposition is fierce

3 min read

underwater mining robot

Underwater mining with a robotic collector.

The Metals Company

Reeling from a crushing shortage of semiconductor chips for vehicles, carmakers also face another looming crisis: producing enough batteries to drive the global pivot towards electric vehicles.

The supply of metals like cobalt, copper, lithium, and nickel needed for batteries is already shaky, and soaring demand for the hundreds of millions of batteries in the coming decades is likely to trigger shortage and high prices.

Some companies want to harvest metallic treasures from the sea. Strewn across large swaths of ocean plains some 5,000 meters deep are potato-like lumps called polymetallic nodules rich in metals and rare-earth elements critical for batteries and electronics. Nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which stretches between Mexico and Hawaii, are estimated to contain more cobalt and nickel than there are in deposits on land.

The Metals Company (previously DeepGreen Metals) in Vancouver expects to be the first to commercially produce metals from these nodules by 2024. And CEO Gerard Barron is confident they can do this without harming critical subsea ecosystems.

The nodules sit on top of the seafloor, so there is no drilling or digging needed. The company's robotic collector will inch along the seafloor, shooting out jets of seawater at the nodules, gently dislodging and suctioning them up. "It's like picking up golf balls on a driving range," says CFO Craig Shesky.

A ship will take the nodules to an onshore processing plant, where they will be smelted to get nickel sulfate, cobalt sulfate, copper and manganese. Texas is top of The Metals Company's list for the processing plant given the state's ports and access to cheap renewables. "We are committed to turning those rocks into metal using renewable power and with zero solid waste," Shesky says.

Raw materials noduleRaw materials noduleThe Metals Company

Agencies from seventeen nations have exploration contracts in the CCZ from the International Seabed Authority. The Metals Company has teamed up with three of those, from the tiny Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga, to access 150,000 square kilometers that, Shesky says, "have sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to electrify the world's vehicle fleet several times over."

Land-based mining is already fraught with environmental destruction, emissions, human rights abuses, and mountains of waste, as well as precarious global supply chains. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces 70 percent of the world's cobalt, and most of the world's nickel sits under Indonesian rainforests. China processes about 80 percent of battery raw materials, creating a chokehold on global supplies. And with much of the world's high-grade resources already spent, companies have turned to low-grade mining resources that produce more waste and emissions.

"There will be a nickel deficit of 40 percent by the end of decade, even higher than copper," Shesky says. "We don't want to have happen with EVs what happened with the semiconductor shortage this year. The question is where should you go to get that metal? Let's go to the desert of the sea, the deep-sea abyssal plains, the parts of the world with least life as opposed to most life like the rainforest. There is 1500 times less life per square meter in these areas than in rainforests."

But while they might have low biomass, they also have astounding biodiversity. Craig Smith, an oceanography professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who has led seven research expeditions to the CCZ. Deep-sea plains are sensitive, pristine ecosystems untouched by humans and their value is hard to assess. "Most of the species we bring up during these studies are new to science. We actually think it's a biodiversity hotspot."

So ocean mining could hurt, maybe annihilate, species we don't even know about yet, Smith says. Sediment plumes that the mining zones create could affect creatures living hundreds of kilometers away. And the nodules themselves are habitat to thousands of microorganisms. "It's not possible to mine polymetallic nodules from the seafloor on a commercial scale without causing substantial ecological damage over tens of thousands of kilometers," he says.

Shesky points out though, that 70 percent of the life in these regions is bacteria, as opposed to the diversity found in the rainforest. A recent study by mechanical engineers at MIT has shown that the detrimental impacts of sediment plumes generated by collector vehicles and by the water-sediment mixture returned into the sea from ships after separating the nodules might be exaggerated. The sediments settle down or dilute back to background levels quickly. Another study has shown that producing metals from nodules would create a tenth of the carbon dioxide emissions as that from land ores.

Even so, there's a lot of opposition to mining the deep-sea floor for resources. BMW, Google, Samsung, and Volvo have all said they will not buy metals mined from such sources until the environmental impacts are better understood. The companies have all signed a World Wildlife Fund moratorium to that effect.

As an extra precaution to ensure oversight and minimal disruption to these deep-ocean residents, The Metals Company will use drones and subsea sensors to monitor nodule-collection in real-time and beam it to stakeholders and regulators. "If there is impact to creature that we didn't anticipate, we can change our plan," he says.

The company last September awarded University of Hawaii at Manoa marine biologist Jeff Drazen US $2.9 million to assess the impacts of deep-sea mining in the CCZ.
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