Clean energy requires rare metals. Should we mine the ocean floor to get them?

Our need for metals runs deep. How deep, you might ask? Why, up
to
16,000 feet deep
, in the form of potato-sized lumps of metal
lying on the seafloor in some of the deepest parts of the oceans.
We’ve been making sci-fi movies and writing books about it for
decades, but commercial deep-sea mining might soon become a
reality. Here’s everything you need to know about this
up-and-coming industry.

If not oil and gas, what? If not now, when?

It starts with our need for clean energy. We’re in the midst
of an energy revolution:
Cities and countries around the globe are switching to clean energy
to curb their carbon emissions
. It’s become a common
government and company promise to say ‘net-zero carbon emissions
by insert-year-here.’ With so many proposed transitions to
renewables, the real lynchpin is keeping up with the demands for
infrastructure. And this means metals.

Battery storage, solar and wind power generation, and continued
tech advancement require metals like neodymium, dysprosium,
tellurium, cadmium, lithium, and cobalt,
to name
a
few
. A single Tesla Model S battery alone contains over

60 kilograms of lithium
. And sure, maybe we can’t all afford
a Tesla, but if you want a zero carbon-emitting solar power and
electricity at night, batteries
— and lithium — are still key.

The unique properties of metals are at the foundation of
renewable technologies, like
magneticity and conductivity
, and allow them to turn wind and
sunlight into usable, storable, energy. Many of these metals can be
quite rare, and their demand is
expected to soar
over the next decades.

So where can we get all these metals? That’s where deep-sea
mining could come in. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? That
is, if we understood more about this mysterious terrain. We know
more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of
our oceans, but one thing we do know is that the oceans hold a lot
of metals. We’re talking tellurium in concentrations
50,000 times
higher than terrestrial deposits.
Millions of tons
of copper, zinc, gold, and silver. And only
thousands of feet of water and a diverse and mostly unknown habitat
in our way.

The skinny on deep-sea mining

Real interest in the resource extraction of the deep sea began
in 1967, when geologist John Mero
published a book
that suggested these metals could be used to
meet global demand for technology
and electrification
. Following this growing interest, the U.N.
responded in 1982 with the United Nations Convention on the Law of
the Sea, a treaty that sought to regulate the high seas by
declaring them the “common
heritage of mankind
.” It also
created three institutions
to govern the exploitation of the
ocean, including the International Seabed Authority, or
ISA. It’s clear that the U.N. intended the resources of the seas
to be used, but also regulated.

In the nearly 40 years since the treaty’s drafting, the
treasure trove of the deep remains unmined. Yet the technology for
mining is on the way. In
September 2017
, Japan became the first country to run a
large-scale, deep-sea mining test, proving that it was indeed
possible. Including one for Japan, the ISA has handed out 29
contracts
for exploration to countries and companies, allowing
them to develop equipment, run tests, and peruse the seabed for
possible mining sites.

The organization has been working toward creating international
regulations governing deep-sea extraction. The ISA drafts a new set
of rules every six months and invites consultation from member
states, private companies, and organizations. The next session is
in July with the final regulations due to be
completed by 2020
.

No such thing as a free lunch, or free metals,
apparently
A rendering of the
machinery that might be used to harvest polymetallic nodules. Photo
courtesy of DeepGreen Metals.

The idea of deep-sea mining has long had a bad rap in the eyes
of environmentalists — the ecosystem is only just beginning to be
understood, and most scientists see some biodiversity loss as an

unavoidable side effect
. The more intensive types of deep-sea
mining involve actually removing parts of the seabed or seamounts,
which would kill any life living there and would take decades
(at
the very least
) for the habitat to fully recover.

The most common type of deep-sea mining, polymetallic nodule
collection, is less intensive and more simple. The
metal-containing nodules
rest scattered across the large
stretches of underwater plains. Prototypes involve harvesters on
belted tracks rolling across the seabed, suctioning up the nodules
and sending them via flexible pipe up to a surface boat. Anything
else that’s collected, like water and sediment, is returned back
to the seafloor.

Even though polymetallic nodule collection tends to be less
harmful than the other forms of mining, there are still many issues
associated with the process. Scientists like Daniel Jones see
serious consequences for the sensitive habitat.

“Imagine a tractor or farm vehicle going over a field,” said
Jones, a deep-sea biologist at the National
Oceanography Center
in South Hampton, in the U.K. “It
disturbs everything, especially the sediments, which take a very
long time to settle. In addition, they’re taking off the top few
centimeters of sediment and the nodules, and that’s where the
majority of the life lives in that environment.”

Besides these “plumes” of displaced sediment and removal of
nodules,
other risks
to sea life include heat, noise, and light emitted
from mining vehicles.

The not-so-great alternative to deep-sea mining

Right now, terrestrial mines are the status quo source for
renewable technology metals. If you put solar panels on your roof,
buy an electric car, or support your city or state’s offshore
wind turbine initiatives, you’re supporting terrestrial mining.
What does that really mean?

If we revisit this wistful
Tesla example
, a lithium-ion battery contains lithium, nickel,
and cobalt, two of which (lithium and cobalt) Tesla already says
are in
short supply
. Most lithium comes from the “Lithium
Triangle” — Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia — where the
sought-after resource uses
huge amounts
of fresh water in an already arid region and
pollutes the rest with toxic chemicals. Nickel mining often
saturates nearby towns with heavy metals and thick, industrial
pollution — rivers in Russia run red and NASA says you could

mine the soil
. Cobalt is no better; the Democratic Republic of
the Congo is the main supplier of the world’s cobalt, where an

unknown number of children
work in hazardous mine conditions
for meager pay.

Basically, your hands might be dirty, even if your technology is
“clean.” And, to put a cherry on top of this harrowing sundae,
there’s
evidence
to support the fact that many terrestrial ore grades,
or the quality of extracted metals,
are

falling
.

Recycling these metals isn’t viable yet — there isn’t much
infrastructure in place yet. Plus, even if we built up the systems,
it is expected that the new demand will exceed the existing supply

within 20 years
.

We simply need more metals. As demand for these metals , and the
viability of traditional mining falls, some look to deep-sea mining
as an unavoidable outcome.

Using deep-sea mining superpowers for good
A small amount of
polymetallic nodules experimentally collected from the seafloor.
Photo courtesy of DeepGreen Metals.

So, is it inevitable that we inflict some damage on the deep-sea
in order to create green infrastructure?

“Some people would speak of a devil’s bargain,” said Conn
Nugent, the project director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s
Seabed
Mining Project
and an observer of ISA meetings.

This is why it has taken so long for the ISA to translate the
cryptic meaning of the Law of the Sea treaty into mining
regulations. In order to create a set of regulations and
protections to preserve the deep sea while also providing enough
leeway for mining industries to meet global metal demand, the ISA
must take feedback from interested mining parties, as well as
conservation-focused scientists.

In terms of protection, the ISA has already designated large
swathes of no-mining zones and has drafted regulations on the
mining process to keep them minimally invasive. The organization
has been collecting information about deep sea flora and fauna
since its creation, and requires contractors to “assess potential effects of
their activities
.”

If the ISA is careful to create conservative mining regulations,
some scientists see potential for the industry to also create
opportunities for further exploration and understanding of the deep
sea.

Andrew Thaler, a deep-sea biologist and frequent observer at ISA
sessions, says that mining expeditions will be in the best position
to study remote deep-sea life. They will have more access and
equipment to study the deep than ever before.

Plus, Thaler argues that all of the concerned parties have
environmentalism in mind to some degree. “I talk to a lot of
people at these different mining companies,” Thaler said. “I
haven’t met anyone involved in this process that doesn’t
genuinely care to some extent about the ecosystems they are working
on. Unlike any other extractive industry in pretty much human
history, this is really the first industry where science and
environmentalism have had a 50-year head start.”

If deep-sea mining is done with care, it could be a boon to our
renewables industry and even our understanding of the fragile
ecosystem of the deep sea. Maybe even something as intrinsically
destructive as mining might have a silver lining. Pun intended.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
Clean energy requires rare metals. Should we mine the ocean floor
to get them?
on Jun 25, 2019.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
Clean energy requires rare metals. Should we mine the ocean floor to get them?