DATE: November 13, 2019

SNIP: The future of electric cars may depend on mining critically important metals on the ocean floor.

That’s the view of the engineer leading a major European investigation into new sources of key elements.

Demand is soaring for the metal cobalt – an essential ingredient in batteries and abundant in rocks on the seabed.

Laurens de Jonge, who’s running the EU project, says the transition to electric cars means “we need those resources”.

What is ‘deep sea mining’? It’s hard to visualise, but imagine opencast mining taking place at the bottom of the ocean, where huge remote-controlled machines would excavate rocks from the seabed and pump them up to the surface.

The concept has been talked about for decades, but until now it’s been thought too difficult to operate in the high-pressure, pitch-black conditions as much as 5km deep.

Now the technology is advancing to the point where dozens of government and private ventures are weighing up the potential for mines on the ocean floor.

Why would anyone bother? The short answer: demand. The rocks of the seabed are far richer in valuable metals than those on land and there’s a growing clamour to get at them.

Billions of potato-sized rocks known as “nodules” litter the abyssal plains of the Pacific and other oceans and many are brimming with cobalt, suddenly highly sought after as the boom in the production of batteries gathers pace.

At the moment, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where for years there’ve been allegations of child labour, environmental damage and widespread corruption.

Laurens de Jonge, who’s in charge of the EU project, known as Blue Nodules, … says society faces a choice: there may in future be alternative ways of making batteries for electric cars – and some manufacturers are exploring them – but current technology requires cobalt.

It’s widely accepted that whatever is in the path of the mining machines will be destroyed – there’s no argument about that. But what’s uncertain is how far the damage will reach, in particular the size of the plumes of silt and sand churned up and the distance they will travel, potentially endangering marine life far beyond the mining site.

The chief scientist on board, Henko de Stigter of the Dutch marine research institute NIOZ, points out that life in the deep Pacific – where mining is likely to start first – has adapted to the usually “crystal clear conditions”. So for any organisms feeding by filter, waters that are suddenly filled with stirred-up sediment would be threatening.

“Many species are unknown or not described, and let alone do we know how they will respond to this activity – we can only estimate.”

Dr de Stigter warned of the danger of doing to the oceans what humanity has done to the land.

“With every new human activity it’s often difficult to foresee all the consequences of that in the long term.

“What is new here is that we are entering an environment that is almost completely untouched.”