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Mining the deep sea: will the world’s oceans help power your electric car?

The Hidden Gem is a 228-meter-long former drill ship currently undergoing modifications to become the world’s first ship classed as a subsea mining vessel.

If there’s one thing you can say about the recycling industry it’s that it’s unpredictable. That goes for most industries, really, as there’s hardly anything we can’t do these days. Everywhere, multi-million R&D projects are turning fiction into fact. But innovation isn’t always logical.

US firm DeepGreen Metals is pioneering a new method to extract metals used for batteries from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The news made me do a double-take. I’ve been writing about battery market trends and recycling for ten years now and thought there was little to me surprise anymore. It appears tech companies still have some tricks up their sleeve.

The estimated raw materials that could be harvested from the exploration areas targeted by DeepGreen could power approximately 280 million electric vehicles. This is a quarter of the global passenger car fleet. Meanwhile, massive deficits are projected for the battery metals sector after 2025. A 30-40% gap between demand and supply is cited for copper and nickel by 2030. 

DeepGreen is looking to retrieve so-called polymetallic nodules which lie on the seafloor, meaning there is no need for drilling and blasting. The microporous nodules have formed over millions of years as a result of absorbing metals from the water. They contain high grades of copper, cobalt, manganese and nickel with few hazardous elements. Ranging from 2-10 cm in diameter, they are very easy to handle and melt.

TedTalk about ocean mining by Professor Thomas Peacock of MIT. ‘Between Hawaii and the west coast of Mexico — there is six times more cobalt and three times more nickel in the nodule field than in the entire land-based global reserve.’

How does it work? The nodules travel up a purpose-built riser system to DeepGreen’s production vessel on which they’re separated from the water and sediment. The unwanted material is then returned below the photic zone to a depth scientifically chosen to have minimal impact. A management system, described as a mix of marine hardware and cloud-based artificial intelligence, creates a virtual replica of the deep-sea environment thus ‘giving eyes and ears’ to the operators.

‘It’s the cleanest way towards e-mobility,’ the company claims. It is eager to point out that ‘producing metals from nodules generates 99% less solid waste with no toxic tailings’ while generating 75% less CO2 than ores from mines ashore.

The list of advantages reminds me of the Monty Python song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (which I love to quote whenever I can). What bothers me when I read such apparantly exciting news is that it entirely skips the potential for recycling existing products. Why mine for battery metals in the middle of the ocean when you can activate the urban mine? Have we forgotten it exists all around us?

City infrastructure mining is another option. The “Prospecting the Urban Mines of Amsterdam” initiative generated a map showcasing how the city could mine its old buildings for various valuable metals.

There are so many used laptops, phones, cameras and other devices lying around somewhere. It seems an awful waste not to focus on enhancing existing collection and sorting systems – alongside smarter product design – before substituting traditional mining with exotic alternatives under a fancier name. I’m also curious about the possible impact on marine life and waste generation during these remote activities (where there are people, there is pollution).

Greenpeace has raised the same questions in a recent article. The organisation describes this large-scale sea mining enterprise as a ‘monster machine built for profit’ that could very well cause ‘severe and irreversible damage to the biggest ecosystem on Earth’.

At the end of the day, it’s the linear approach to products and resources that got us into this situation. If you ask me, I’d vote for pumping more money into cutting-edge recycling technology and setting up commercial battery recycling hubs. That way, we will truly appreciate the inherent value of scrap and recycling – not as an afterthought or quirky side project, but as the main act.

Earlier this year, Deme Group created Patania II; a 25-ton ultra-deepwater robot on tracks. The nodule mining ‘caterpillar’ was successfully deployed for the first time on 18 April, and resurfaced after 50 hours.

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