New research claims that mining base metals required for EV batteries – a critical component of transitioning the global economy away from fossil fuels – from the ocean floor would be less environmentally dangerous then relying on ores mined from traditional sources.
A year-long study conducted by a coalition of leading researchers and scientists and funded by Canadian metals producer DeepGreen Metals – which wants to mine on the ocean floor – points to the impacts of sourcing metals to produce battery cathodes and wiring for electric vehicles.
The report examined the ways in which we as a society can source the massive amounts of mineral resources necessary for the massive transition away from fossil fuels required by our globally recognised climate targets in a manner least detrimental to the environment.
Considering that the World Bank currently expects demand for certain EV battery metals is projected to increase by 11 times the current level by 2050, and shortages in nickel, cobalt, and copper have already been predicted to emerge as soon as 2025, these questions are not short on relevance.
The study conducted an in-depth comparison of cradle-to-gate impacts of mining ores from traditional land-based sources against collecting polymetallic nodules from the deep seafloor of the Pacific Ocean.
Both serve as sources for nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese – and the study found that mining ocean nodules can deliver 70% less CO2 direct emissions, 84% less stored carbon at risk, and a 90% reduction in sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen ocides (NOx).
Mining for polymetallic nodules would also result in a 100% reduction in solid waste, a 94% land use reduction, and a 93% reduction in risk to wildlife.
The study examined the relative impacts of the extraction, processing, and refining of these key base metals across several impact categories including greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, non-living resources and habitats, biodiversity, human health, and economics.
“The purpose of this in-depth research effort is to provide a substantive look into the impacts of different sources of the critical battery metals that make up the bedrock of the clean energy economy,” said DeepGreen Chairman and CEO Gerard Barron.
“The scale of the green transition is monumental, and the timeline is daunting. For Earth Day’s 50th anniversary let’s go deeper than mere calls for renewable energy and electric transport and have an honest conversation about the resources required to get us there.
“We believe that polymetallic nodules are an important part of the solution. They contain high concentrations of nickel, cobalt and manganese—they’re effectively an EV battery in a rock.”
DeepGreen Metals, a Canadian company which produces base and strategic metals, is looking to disrupt the minerals industry and reshape how critical battery metals are sourced, processed, and ultimately recycled.
In October, the company successfully derived its first alloy of base metals from polymetallic nodules in a processing lab.
Meanwhile, the company’s partner Allseas acquired in March the former ultra-deepwater drill ship “Vitoria 10000” for conversion to a polymetallic nodule collection vessel, and in early April DeepGreen announced the acquisition of Tonga Offshore Mining Limited which gives the company access to a third seabed contract area in which to explore for battery metals.
“In our opinion, the paper provides a comprehensive consideration of the environmental, social and economic impacts associated with land and deep-sea mining of metals used in electric vehicles,” added Todd Cort, co-director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and Cary Krosinsky, lecturer in sustainable finance at the Yale School of Management, writing in the forward to the paper.
Polymetallic nodules might be a new concept to some, but they nevertheless consist of nearly 100% usable minerals and contain no toxic levels of deleterious elements.
This compares sharply with land ores which have increasingly low yields, often as low as below 1%, while commonly containing toxic levels of deleterious elements.
In turn, then, producing the necessary metals for continued EV production from ocean floor polymetallic nodules has the potential to generate almost zero solid waste and no toxic tailings, as opposed to the traditional mining process which produces billions of tonnes of waste and which can leak deadly toxins into the local soil and water resources.
“Over the last 5 years there has been heightened awareness of the environmental, social and economic impacts of producing metals from land ores,” said Dr. Steven Katona, one of the whitepaper’s lead researchers and a marine biologist and ecologist.
“We essentially built on existing lifecycle assessment indicators work for land-based mining and created an apples-to-apples comparison for battery material production from ocean nodules.”
“This unique comparative LCSA enables auto manufacturers, technology companies and policy makers to understand how these different sources of key base metals measure up against each other with regards to their impacts.”
The outcomes of the research are not foolproof, however, and provide several questions that need further answering.
The researchers explain that, while the deep seabed is a food-poor environment and boasts limited biomass, there are still uncertainties over the nature as well as the temporal and spatial scales of impacts from such a polymetallic nodule collection as would be required.
As such, the study serves as a launching platform for deeper, multi-year environmental and social impact assessments already being conducted by DeepGreen, in what the company says will be the largest integrated seabed-to-surface deep-ocean science program ever conducted, with over 100 separate studies being undertaken.
DeepGreen has therefore partnered with three pacific island states – the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of Kiribati and the Kingdom of Tonga – to conduct deep-sea environmental studies, mineral exploration, and project development.
DeepGreen, working through these three states, has exclusive rights under the International Seabed Authority to explore for polymetallic nodules in regions of the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean.