Polymetallic nodules are mixtures of rare metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese that resemble burned charcoal in size and appearance.
| Controversy |
Trillions of small, irregular black ores scattered across the ocean floor three miles deep in the central Pacific Ocean may be the solution to the looming energy crisis. These ores, called “polymetallic nodules,” are a mixture of rare metals such as nickel, cobalt and manganese that are the size and appearance of burned charcoal. The polymetallic nodules were formed over millions of years in a complex biochemical process in which minerals in seawater gradually encrusted shark teeth and fish bones.
Marine biologists say the deep sea, where polymetallic nodules are found, is one of the least known areas on Earth; they are so vital to the oceans that they even hold the mystery of life on Earth. Gerard Barron, CEO of the seabed mining company Metals Company, calls polymetallic nodules “a battery in the rock” and “the easiest way to solve climate change. “. The nodules, located in the International Oceanic Zone (Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone) between Hawaii and Mexico, are rich in the metals needed to make the batteries that power the laptops, cell phones and electric cars we use. Barron estimates that polymetallic nodules contain enough cobalt and nickel to power 4.8 billion electric cars. Mining these nodules is as easy as sucking a golf ball out of a hole, he says.
But environmentalists say mining polymetallic nodules could have consequences far worse than climate change. The oceans are an important carbon sink, absorbing up to a quarter of global carbon emissions each year. The process of mining nodules itself is unlikely to disrupt the ocean’s carbon absorption capacity, but the fact that most of the planet’s oceans are connected to each other and share a system of currents that surround the Earth means that what happens on one side of the ocean could have unpredictable effects on the other side of the planet. “If the mining process goes wrong, it could trigger a series of unintended consequences that could destabilize the oceans and ultimately affect life all over the planet.” Pippa Howard, head of Fauna and Flora International, said, “Polymetallic nodules are a central part of a biome that is the size of the Amazon rainforest.”
There is a growing ethical controversy about mining the last uncharted territory of the Earth. Biologists argue with geologists, manufacturers argue with suppliers, and environmentalists of different persuasions argue with each other …… The world faces a paradox that will determine our path to a fossil fuel-free future: sustainable energy is cleaner, but requires the use of metals and resources, the extraction of which contributes to global warming and affects biodiversity. Thus, against the backdrop of national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the issue is no longer a conflict between fossil fuel companies and clean energy proponents, but rather which ecosystems we are willing to sacrifice on the way to clean energy.
| The Cost |
To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, we must embrace electric vehicles. But according to a May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, there are not enough batteries made from minerals currently mined around the world to support a clean energy future. Demand for metals from electric vehicles alone could grow more than 30-fold from 2020 to 2040. The report concludes, “If the supply chain cannot meet soaring demand, then a shortage of minerals could mean a shortage of clean energy.” Out of this concern, companies in various countries are racing for supply to prepare for the coming energy transition.
Proponents of deep-sea mining argue that polymetallic nodules could provide most of the minerals the world needs, with minimal environmental impact. The biggest risk to the oceans today is global warming, and the solution lies at the bottom of the ocean, where there is a deposit that could provide the minerals needed for a clean energy infrastructure,” said Chris Van Nyken, managing director of Belgian deep-sea mining company Global Marine Mineral Resources. ”
Metal’s exploration vessel conducts environmental studies of the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone.
Currently, commercial mining is not permitted in international waters. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the U.N. agency responsible for managing seabed resources, is still considering the conditions and modalities for seabed mining. Several companies, including Global Ocean Mineral Resources and Metals, have already collected dozens of tons of polymetallic nodules in exploration missions, and they are pressuring ISA to approve commercial mining. Barron told potential investors that Metals expects to mine polymetallic nodules by 2024; Global Ocean Mineral Resources, for its part, says two mining robots will be able to extract as much as 3 million tons of polymetallic nodules per year when the company starts that operation.
Not everyone agrees with mining. Scientists, environmentalists, the European Parliament and some governments have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until its ecological consequences are better understood. They argue that the marine environment, already threatened by climate change, overfishing, industrial pollution and plastic waste, could be pushed into the abyss by the additional pressure caused by heavy machinery in this case. The deep sea, three miles below the ocean’s surface, is home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth; under eternal darkness, intense cold and extreme stress, it has given birth to unique life forms found nowhere else, such as the newly discovered ghost octopus known as “Casper” and a shelled snail that doesn’t need to eat to survive. and a shelled snail that doesn’t need to eat anything to survive.
Metal’s seafloor coring rig
Teams of exploration vessels use remote tools to survey fracture zones for species.
The data suggest that deep-sea mining may have devastating long-term effects on marine life. A Scientific Reports study showed that in 1989, scientists simulated deep-sea mining in a zone similar to the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and showed that 30 years later, mining traces were still visible on the seafloor and populations of sponges, soft corals and sea anemones never recovered to previous levels.
| Business Opportunities |
If you discover a cobalt mine in your own backyard, in most cases the resulting revenue will belong to you or the national government. But most of the world’s known deep-sea metal deposits are located in international waters, which means they belong to the world.
First discovered in the Arctic Ocean in 1868, polymetallic nodules are found in almost all oceans, but are concentrated in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. In the 1960s and 1970s, several multinational mining groups began to exploit the resources of the fracture zone. Prior to that, polymetallic nodules were widely regarded as a geological curiosity. Although polymetallic nodules could be mined for up to 21 billion tons at the time, there was little commercial interest, mainly due to the high cost of extraction and the relative abundance of metals (especially nickel) on land. The United Nations believed that polymetallic nodules and other potentially lucrative seabed minerals in international waters should be considered the “common heritage of mankind” and therefore established the ISA in 1994 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. to organize and control all mining activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole, with the benefits shared by the countries exploiting the resources and other members of the international community.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ISA has two almost mutually exclusive powers: one to manage mineral resources for the benefit of mankind, and the other to protect the marine environment from the hazards of mining, said Elena Jäckel, an expert on international seabed mining law at the University of Potsdam in Germany. It is almost impossible to comply with both at the same time because of the environmental impact of any mining activity,” she said. There is no solution to this problem, so the question becomes: what level of harm is acceptable?”
These two conflicting regulations may explain why nearly 30 years after its creation, ISA has yet to agree on mining regulations, let alone how to allocate the revenue generated by the world’s mineral resources. As of last September, ISA had authorized 18 contracts for exploration for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. Once mining regulations are formalized, exploration contract holders can apply for commercial mining licenses.
The ISA provides developing countries with priority in obtaining mining concessions for known deposits, a move designed to promote fair competition, while companies from other member countries can sponsor developing countries in applying for contracts. The Pacific island nation of Nauru is partnering with Metals Corporation, so the Canada-based startup will have priority access to 75,000 square kilometers of polymetallic nodule deposits for mining. Details of Metals’ agreement with the Nauru government have not been disclosed, but according to the company’s pre-IPO regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, it will earn $95 billion from its production activities over the next 23 years and pay 7.6 percent of that to Nauru and the ISA as royalties.
Pradeep Singh, an assistant researcher at the University of Potsdam, believes that Nauru may have partnered with Metals because the latter wanted to kick off an investment boom before going public. Either way, Barron has succeeded in cloaking a costly, untested and notoriously risky underwater mining operation in environmental protection, portraying it as a shortcut to saving the planet. At least for investors, it’s a profitable shortcut.
| The Trade-off
Even if subsea mining can provide sufficient metal for the growing number of electric vehicles, land-based mining is unlikely to disappear. Demand for metals will only grow, and marine mining may not be immune to the oversight failures that land-based mining typically faces. For example, with regard to high seas fishing, detailed rules are documented but not enforced because enforcement is difficult and it is too costly to regulate nearly 100 million square nautical miles of ocean, so violations are common.
In addition, it is not yet known whether cobalt mining will remain important in the future of the automotive battery technology industry. Many battery manufacturers, including Tesla, are beginning to recycle cobalt and other metals from discarded batteries, and some have already turned to alternatives to cobalt. Gavin Harper, a PhD student and researcher in battery metals at the University of Birmingham’s Energy Institute, said lithium-iron phosphate batteries may have a lower energy density than cobalt batteries, but engineers prefer to use the former in order to reduce their reliance on imported cobalt. He said, “Lithium-iron phosphate batteries do not perform as well as cobalt batteries, but they are not bad and can meet the needs of most consumers and are not as cumbersome as cobalt batteries.”
In its report, the International Energy Agency noted that electric vehicle battery makers are rejecting cobalt in favor of cheaper and more abundantly available sources. Harper said, “My concern is that because of the high price of cobalt now, we are starting to mine cobalt in the oceans, but with the arrival of next-generation batteries and more efficient recycling technologies, we are already doing irreparable damage to the marine environment for the benefit of just a few years.”
Global Marine Mineral Resources’ 25-ton mining robot
| Wandering |
Marine biologist Diva Amon has been conducting research in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone since 2013. Each study has deepened her understanding of the complex relationships between deep-sea organisms and their habitats. Her research shows that these relationships also affect the biodiversity, survival patterns and carbon sequestration of the surrounding ecosystem, which scientists know little about.
Amon’s research shows that there is still a great deal to learn. Barron has talked about “picking” polymetallic nodules from the seafloor, but mining robots actually work much like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up not only the ore but also four inches of sediment. It’s like cutting down a forest by the roots and digging up 10 feet of topsoil, Amon said. She also worries that sediment stirred up by the mining robots could float with the currents and destroy biological habitats miles away, with unimaginable consequences.
Barron has already invested $3 million in deep-sea research and will follow up with another $72 million. He said preliminary studies show that deep-sea mining does not have these effects. Amon, for her part, argues that the current study is too short to determine whether there will be impacts. It’s not that you can never mine in the deep sea, it’s just that the time is not right yet,” she said. If we act recklessly, we could lose part of the planet and the species that live in it forever, before we even get a chance to understand and value them.”
Some companies have heeded scientists’ advice to suspend seabed mining activities. Last March, BMW, Volvo and others issued a joint statement pledging not to purchase any deep-sea mined metals until they “fully understand” the environmental risks. The World Bank cautioned about the “irreparable damage to the environment and the negative impact on the public” of seabed mining activities and urged caution. Seabed mining companies argue that the ISA’s current research requirements are sufficient. Global Marine Mineral Resources’ Van Nykin argued that stopping marine mineral exploration could backfire, saying, “Stopping exploration would take away the only shred of certainty the industry has, which means we’d be in a very different position in a decade than we are now.”
Rare Metals: The Essential Elements of Modern Life
Electrolytic manganese dioxide is a key component of lithium-ion and alkaline batteries.
Nickel is resistant to corrosion and oxidation, easily alloyed with other metals, and has become the main component of electric car batteries.
Cobalt is used in the manufacture of batteries, and more than half of the world’s cobalt ore comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).