All of the battery metals we need to power a billion EVs could be on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, but collecting them and turning them into EV batteries is a major challenge.
Why is this important: It will take a lot of batteries to replace the world’s gasoline cars with zero-emission electric vehicles. And that will require extracting more lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese from the earth.
- Experts fear that the environmental threats of mining may outweigh the benefits of increased production of renewable energy.
What is happening: The Metals Company of Vancouver says it has identified a less damaging way to extract battery metals from ancient rocks lying on the seabed.
The context: Polymetallic nodules are metal-rich rocks formed slowly over millions of years as layers of iron and manganese hydroxides have developed around a small shell or fragment of rock. Many also contain nickel, copper, and cobalt.
- One of the largest deposits of nodules is the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles west of Mexico and about 500 miles south of Hawaii. – well outside the territory of any country.
- Exploration rights to the underwater field are controlled by the International Seabed Authority, established in 1982 by the United Nations to ensure that mining in international waters benefits all countries, not just the wealthy.
- Through sponsorship agreements with three tiny Pacific island countries vulnerable to climate change – Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati – The Metals Company has secured exploration rights to approximately 150,000 square kilometers of ISA-authorized seabed.
- These sections alone contain rock resources estimated to be sufficient for 280 million electric vehicles – a quarter of the total global passenger car fleet, said CEO Gerard Barron.
- “Mother Nature did a great job putting all of these amazing rocks in one place,” he adds.
How it works: A robotic collector – similar to a giant vacuum cleaner – foams designated areas of the seabed, sucking polymetallic nodules in the middle of a thin layer of sediment, before pumping them to a production support vessel on the surface .
- The collected nodules are then transported to land for further processing and refining.
The other side: “Sending gigantic mining machines designed to raze and stir the seabed is clearly a very bad idea,” according to a Greenpeace article.
- Deep-sea mining will damage sensitive and unique habitats, threatening sea creatures and disrupting the oceanic food chain, the organization argues.
The Metals Company sees it differently. Rocks are easily removed without blasting, drilling or excavation – traditional mineral extraction practices that cause deforestation and create toxic waste.
- “They literally sit there like golf balls on a driving range,” said Barron.
- Microorganisms on the seabed are not destroyed, he said. Instead, they are “shaken up and going on,” he said.
And after: The company, founded in 2009 as Deep Green Metals, goes public through a merger with a shell company called Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation.
- The PSPC deal values the company at $ 2.9 billion and will provide investment capital to begin pilot production by 2024, likely in Asia.
- Proceeds from the pilot project will help fund some of the $ 7 billion the company will need to move to full-scale production, which could begin in the United States by 2026, according to the company’s public documents. .
The reality is that the clean energy transition is not possible without taking billions of tons of metal from the planet. The nodules of the seabed offer a means of considerably reducing the environmental bill of this extraction.
– Gerald Barron, The Metals Company